Ryan Taylor Cemeteries are a vital resource


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By Ryan Taylor

People put a lot of store in finding their ancestors' graves. It they're lucky, there's an informative gravestone. We've all stood for a moment beside a newly discovered ancestor, moved by their nearness, even if it's in the ground.

In the future, it is possible that we'll use those old gravesites to gather DNA for linking current genealogists to ancestors where we aren't sure of the line. Comparing our DNA to theirs will confirm if we got it right.

Ten years ago, I attended an after-dinner talk at a genealogical conference. It was intended to be funny, as a rather ditzy saleswoman told of her new product, a kit called 'Core-Sampling Grandpa.' It had the material necessary to obtain a sample for DNA testing. Everyone thought it was outrageous and hilarious. Who would ever do that?

Now it's not so outrageous. It's real.

And that reminds me of a cemetery tale which will throw all the DNA proof out the window, told to me by Carol J. Markillie of California.

During World War II, a Roman Catholic priest on Wolfe Island near Kingston, Ontario, decided he needed to do his bit for the war effort. He cleared the churchyard in his parish, piling the gravestones in a corner. He used the open space to plant a Victory Garden.

Victory Gardens were the way people saved wartime resources for other uses, by growing their own food-primarily vegetables, but also some fruit. By growing their own, they diverted food which they might have used to go to soldiers or defense workers.

The garden was a success, and when the war ended, the priest took the cemetery back to its original use. He replanted the gravestones throughout the churchyard, but didn't worry if they were going back in the same places they had come from.

So anyone doing DNA sampling in Sacred Heart Cemetery, Frontenac County, may very well get a surprise. They'll end up confused or scandalized or both.

Most of us will be fortunate in not having to rely on DNA samples to prove our genealogy. We'll have documents to help us do that, instead.

Cemetery stones remain a good source of data. Some care must be taken with the information, because obviously the person in question was not there to supply it. But their family would have done everything they could to make it accurate.

Newer gravestones rarely have more than names and dates, with an occasional family relationship. Older ones can include birthplaces, which are invaluable in finding more information in Ireland or Germany. Once you've located a grave, there may be cemetery records which also contain extra information. Those for Ayr Cemetery, for instance, tell who's buried in each plot and how they are related to the plot owner.

The Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid is still available. It is no longer active, but contains two million names, indexing cemetery transcriptions from across the province.

The Ontario Genealogical Society has the Ontario Cemetery Ancestor Index and Cemetery Locator. The locator is a directory of cemeteries in Ontario. The ancestor index is a listing of people from cemetery transcriptions compiled by OGS branches, independent genealogical societies and historical groups.

A listing of cemeteries in Waterloo Region, with histories, also allows you to determine if a copy of that cemetery's transcription is for sale.

The project to transcribe all the cemeteries in Ontario, from single gravesites to the largest city graveyards, has been ongoing since 1973. Most cemeteries have been done now, including all those in Waterloo Region. It makes finding those elusive relations much easier.

Posted September 14, 2005
Column copyright © 2005 Ryan Taylor

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