Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Leave No Stone Unturned -- Finding Information Beyond the Grave

Whenever I attend the Lackey/Sharpe Reunion in Hiddenite, North Carolina, I visit the family cemetery.   It’s a tradition that has been going on my entire life and the lives of my parents and grandparents.  Since I live 8 hours away from Hiddenite, this annual pilgrimage is the only time I can come and pay my respects to my great grandparents and great-great grandparents.  The names engraved on the stones are familiar to me because of stories handed down from my grandfather and other relatives attending the reunions.  I know that spiritually, my ancestors are not there, but in visiting the cemetery, I believe I am keeping their memory alive.

But what about the ancestors we didn’t know we had?  As we discover ancestors, why are we drawn to their resting place?  I think, in a way, as we stand before their headstone, we feel a connection even though we haven’t heard their stories.  For me, it is a hope that they know I care enough to seek them out and get to know them even though they have long since "shuffled off this mortal coil"  (Hamlet 3.1.67).

In the Spring of 2015, my husband and I took a trip to Chicago, Illinois to do some family history sleuthing.  I had been investigating a genetic line of mine that had only recently been revealed to me and I was extremely curious to get to know these people that had passed down their genes to me.  Prior to the trip I researched enough to know this new found paternal family had come from Norway and lived in Chicago before moving on and settling in Pennsylvania. But how did I find their resting place?  

The Death Certificate.

It is amazing at how much information you can glean from a death certificate.   Below we have the death record for my 2nd great grandfather Bernard Clausen.  It gives quite a bit of information.  His name:  notice the abbreviation given as Bernt.  His occupation: Salesman/Pianos.  His date of death: June 14, 1917.  But look!  Something very interesting!  His cause of death: Effects of injuries 'Collision between street car and automobile.  Wow!  I did not see this one coming.  (Well, I guess he didn't either.)  A great piece of information I would later follow up on and will detail in a future post.  But for now, let's look at the bottom of the certificate.

Death Certificate for Bernard Clausen, my great-great grandfather who immigrated from Norway.

At the base of the death certificate we find the name of the informant and his address, as well as Bernard's home address when he died.  We also find the name of the cemetery where Bernt was laid to rest, and even who the undertaker was.  So, while on the surface of this document there remains many missing pieces of the puzzle (birth date and name of parents), we still have quite a bit of information to go on.

The Cemetery

Mt. Olive Cemetery was my first stop.  Cemeteries come in many sizes, and this was an extremely large one.  Large enough to have an office where I stopped to get a map.  This is not uncommon.  Many large cemeteries will have a map that will aid you in finding the plots you are looking for.  While waiting for the clerk to find the location of my ancestral plot, I noticed she pulled a card out of an old fashioned card catalog.  Intrigued, I asked to look at it.  There was some hesitation on her part, but ultimately she agreed.  Below is an image of that card.  Another clue is about to be revealed!
Cemetery Plot Record for the Clausen Family. Mt Olive Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

 Take a close look at this cemetery index record and see what it has to offer.  I thought I would only see a plot number and Bernt's name.  But there was so much more.  On the right of the card is obviously the plot numbers and layout.  It did not surprise me that he had a wife buried with him.  I had learned of her death when I was researching Bernt and his children.  But what I found here was something no immigration record or census record had revealed:  two children - Earl and Ellen.

I knew that Bernard and Jennette had five sons, one of them being named Earl.  Records I had researched had shown the death of a young son Earl, but I already knew of a son Earl that lived to full adulthood.  Norwegian tradition, however, dictates that when a person in the immediate family dies, the next child of the same sex is named after that individual.  So, the living adult child Earl was apparently named after his previously deceased brother Earl.  Mystery solved.  However, there was no record indicating a daughter was born, and no one in the family ever heard of a daughter having been born and lost in this family of all sons.  What a find!  I was anxious to leave the cemetery office and head over to the plot to see the headstones.

This is what I found.

My husband, Ken, stands on the site of where the Clausen's are recorded as being buried.

It is very frustrating to seek out a grave site and find nothing there.  Gravestones provide a plethora of information, and here we have none.  My husband and I searched a 100 yard radius to see if there had been a mistake in the plot location.  We even returned to the office to verify the information given to us and then went back to the site.  No stone.  Very disheartening.  We would have loved to place flowers and taken photos, but it was not to be.

But all was not lost on this visit.  Remember, we found the cemetery plot card and it held details we hadn't known.  The card even revealed who had inherited the plot and who was therefore responsible for it.  I took action and reached out to the descendants of the individual listed on the card, and they had no idea about the cemetery.  In fact, they knew little to nothing about their ancestors, so my correspondence was a revelation to them.

My trek to Chicago was not in vain.  I wanted to know more about my paternal ancestors who had been kept from me.  Following tradition, I had gone to the cemetery to find answers to questions I had about these relatives.  The answers were there.  Well, some of them were, and not in the way I expected to find them, but there nonetheless.  It is a testament that we should leave no stone unturned and always remember to share what we find.  Because...

History Not Shared is History Forgotten!