Peter J. Ryan, director of cemeteries for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., looks through lot cards at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury, N.Y. The cards contain burial records of the deceased interred at the cemetery. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz
Peter J. Ryan, director of cemeteries for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., looks through lot cards at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury, N.Y. The cards contain burial records of the deceased interred at the cemetery. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

By Mike Nelson | Catholic News Service

OXNARD, Calf. – As interest in genealogical research increases, some Catholics have found that their relatives' final earthly addresses can be helpful, even valuable resources.

"Catholic cemeteries represent a living archive of our faith community," said Richard Peterson, director of Associated Catholic Cemeteries in the Archdiocese of Seattle, and treasurer of the Catholic Cemetery Conference.

"We're fortunate to have these resting places for those who built our faith communities," he said. "It offers a valuable link to those of us who serve the church today, and so it makes sense that people want to know more about their past. And assisting people in their genealogical research is part of the mission and ministry of Catholic cemetery staff."

But he and other cemetery officials acknowledged that this increased interest in family history research has required diocesan offices and individual Catholic cemeteries to institute policies designed to assist the inquiring researchers, but also to protect historic records and limited resources.

Moreover, those seeking information on Grandma Jones or Great Uncle Pete should be advised that the process may not be as rapid as they would hope, nor will it likely yield much more information than the date of burial and gravesite location.

"Cemetery records were never set up with the expectation that they would also provide extensive data for genealogical research," the Archdiocese of Chicago's Catholic Cemeteries Office points out on its website.

Thus, while some burial records may contain additional sacramental information, perhaps even a newspaper obituary attached, those are exceptions.

"If we can locate the site, we can provide a copy of the original burial record," said Luanne Baron, records office manager for the Catholic Cemeteries Association of Boston, which oversees 25 cemeteries in the archdiocese. "That record would include the name of the deceased, date of burial, the exact gravesite number and location, and possibly other information – like the date of death, or the person's age at the time of death."

For those who inquire, Catholic Cemeteries of Boston provides the deceased's gravesite location at no charge. For additional information, a nominal fee is requested with the proviso that it will be returned if a search is unsuccessful.

But that sort of research takes staff time, Baron said, "and genealogical research is not our first priority." Nor are all burial or entombment records recorded in a centrally located database; in the case of "older lots," or burial locations, "chances are they won't be in our database," Baron said.

Like most diocesan cemetery offices, Boston's requests that inquiries on burial and death records be made in writing, and it discourages "walk in" visits from people wanting to comb through records on their own.

"We can't take the chance for our records, especially those older records which aren't in our electronic database, to be lost, misplaced or taken by people wanting them for their personal family archives," Baron said.

In addition to diocesan Catholic cemeteries offices, many larger or older dioceses have older parishes with their own cemeteries. The first parish of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles – San Gabriel Mission, founded by St. Junipero Serra in 1771 – has (like many California missions) an on-site cemetery, with burials dating to the early 1800s.

"And we do get quite a few requests for family history information," said Al Sanchez, parish business manager, who oversees cemetery operations. "But we're at the mercy of those who recorded the information, especially in those early times. Some records will show next of kin; others will show the parents' names, or who provided the information on the deceased; and others, hardly anything."

But the policies of San Gabriel Mission Cemetery are very much the same as diocesan cemetery offices around the United States. Requests for information must be made by email or in writing, and records are not available for the public to walk in and peruse. "Most of those records are very fragile and irreplaceable," Sanchez said.

There also are privacy concerns, said Peterson of Seattle. "You need to strike the balance between offering information that is a matter of public record and respecting the privacy of a family," he said. "So we are careful with what we provide."

He and other cemetery officials find it remarkable that, on occasion, someone will request information on "my grandfather," but not know their grandfather's name. Or they will ask about someone with a common name.

"We have 436 Murphys in our cemeteries, including 33 Mary Murphys," he said with a smile. "So it helps to give us the most precise information you can to help us in our research."