Deceased ancestors leave behind a lot of information about themselves and their families—and even moreso in some cases when they are Jewish. Because of the data that can be found on Jewish gravestones and burial records, as well as understanding the potential relevance of a plot’s location in a particular part of a cemetery, Jewish burial information can yield a treasure trove of information.
Even the most basic Jewish tombstone generally gives the deceased’s Hebrew name and that of his or her father. Besides the obvious additional generation back that such a stone reveals, having the Hebrew name of an immigrant ancestor can help find him or her on ship manifests and in European records.
More ornate stones will generally give information about a person’s character, things the person did during his or her life, and sometimes state the person’s hometown. Obtaining a full translation of all the Hebrew on a tombstone can reveal significant information about an individual. Should you not read Hebrew, there are some great ways to get free translations, including JewishGen’s ViewMate and the Facebook group Genealogy Translations.
In families impacted by the Holocaust, survivors often had their murdered family members’ names put on the back of the survivors’ gravestones, since their relatives did not have graves to mark. Full family groups can often be reconstructed from these memorials.
Many Jewish cemeteries are divided up into sections belonging to various landsmanshaften. These were fraternal groups formed by immigrants from a particular town or area in Europe. One of the benefits of being a landsmanshaft member was having access to plots in the group’s cemetery section. If you haven’t identified your family’s town of origin and your immigrant ancestors are buried in a specific landsmanshaft’s section of a cemetery, that could be an important clue. While not everyone buried in a landsmanshaft’s section was from the associated area (for example spouses who came from another area but married someone from the landsmanshaft-associated town), the vast majority of people are from that area.
To find a Jewish relative’s grave, you can look at some of the sites that are applicable to people regardless of religion, including FindAGrave and BillionGraves. Of course an individual’s death certificate would have the place of burial as well. Should you not have the death certificate, and the grave isn’t on FindAGrave or BillionGraves, there are a few more options available to find those buried in Jewish cemeteries. JewishGen’s Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) is attempting to catalogue the world’s Jewish cemeteries. While not all of its entries have photos, many do, and many also give the plot number for specific individuals—and they can help you identify a cemetery in which relatives are buried. Another option is JewishData which has images of some large New York-area cemeteries, as well as others across North America. While seeing these images requires a paid subscription, searches to see if the site has your family’s graves photographed are free.
Because of the specific religious laws and customs governing Jewish burials, most towns with Jewish populations have at least one funeral home that specializes in Jewish burials. Records from those funeral homes may be in the possession of the funeral home itself it is still exists; companies that went out of business often gave their records to a local Jewish historical society or Jewish museum.
In addition to the information on gravestones, many cemeteries both in the United States and Europe have cemetery registers—which may often give more information than appears on a stone. In some cases, the stone may be illegible, but if the cemetery records are in good condition they can give significant information.
Never disregard gravestones and cemetery records when you’re doing research—that could be a grave mistake!