Motivations for Burial Site Selection 1


People choose cemeteries for their family interments for many reasons. My Morgan family chose a hilltop lot in a cemetery just outside my hometown. The lot was purchased at the time of my Grandfather Morgan’s death in March of 1953. There are six burial plots in the lot with a family surname stone monument in the center. My grandfather was buried in the center plot on one side of the stone. Footstone markers have been used for all those buried there. My Grandmother Morgan died in December of 1966 and was buried beside my grandfather. Their only daughter, unmarried, died in February of 1969 and was buried on the other side of her father. When my father died in May of 1980, he was buried in the center plot on the other side of the family stone.

Before my mother died in 1993, she insisted strongly that she be buried beside my father but on the side of him that was farthest from her mother-in-law. Yes, there was a lot of animosity there. Mother told us that she would come back and haunt us if we buried her head-to-head with her mother-in-law. We followed her instructions. However, this just points to the fact that there are reasons that people request that they be buried in certain places and certain positions. Let’s explore some reasons.

Why Would They Choose That Place?

People choose any number of places for their burial and for many reasons. Some of the most common are listed below.

  • Place of Birth – Some people want to be returned to their hometown for burial. They may feel better about being buried near their birth family members or in that familiar childhood place than elsewhere.
  • Burial with a Predeceased Spouse – My grandparents and parents are typical in the fact that they were buried as couples beside one another. However, what if a surviving spouse remarries? Perhaps he or she decides to be buried with the new spouse, but it is possible too that the burial may be with the previous spouse and other family members associated with that marriage.
  • Burial with Another Spouse – A widowed person may have remarried and subsequently may have been interred with the later spouse or family members, even if a burial plot and marker were in place with the first spouse.
  • Burial with In-Laws – In order to be buried with one’s spouse, a person might be buried beside or near him or her in the spouse’s parents’ family cemetery lot.
  • Burial with Children – It is not unusual for older, widowed or divorced parents to relocate to live with a child and his or her family. The child, the daughter- or son-in-law, and any grandchildren may take care of the parent as he or she ages. The parent may then be interred in the child’s family group cemetery lot.
  • Burial in a Lot with Special Relatives – A person may have had a special relationship with or affection for family members other than his or her parents, spouse, or children and wants to be interred with them. When the surname of the person is different than the rest of the members of the family interred in the lot, it makes for interesting speculation.
  • Church and Parish Burials – Some people are buried in a churchyard or in a parish graveyard (and maybe not the one adjacent to a church) because of their religious affiliation, the presence of other family members, or for another reason. These people may have opted for this location rather than being interred in a family cemetery lot elsewhere. And don’t overlook that a person may have been interred inside the church and/or in an interior crypt.
  • Burial by an Employer – In past centuries, it wasn’t unusual for there to be a town, or neighborhood, that built up around an industry or an employer. Company houses, a company store, and often a company cemetery were components of the community. An employer may have taken responsibility to pay for burial of workers and the placement of markers. This is why keeping track of the employment of an individual may become very important to your search for the death and burial location.
  • Burial in a Mass Grave – Epidemics, accidents, natural disasters, wars, and genocide are among the reasons why an individual may have been interred in a mass grave. These events have often resulted in overwhelming numbers of deaths that require expeditious burials for community health reasons. Commemorative monuments, tablets, steles, and other markers may have been erected for these persons, or there may be no marker.
  • War Casualty Burials – Death on the field of battle during military conflicts result in burials nearby. For example, soldiers killed in Europe, Asia, and other military theaters of operation during the World Wars may have been interred in military cemeteries. Although governments may have offered to disinter and ship the remains back to the families, many families opted to refuse the offer. Take a look at the American Battle Monuments Commission site at http://www.abmc.gov, the Canadian Virtual War Memorial at http://www.virtualmemorial.gc.ca, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site at http://www.cwgc.org for examples of online memorials and databases of war casualties buried overseas.
  • Workhouse, Poorhouse, and Pauper Burials – The poor and indigent in a community often had no choice of the disposition of their remains after death. Burial grounds, sometimes referred to as “potters’ fields,” were commonly used. The interments were rarely recorded, and the graves were seldom marked.
  • Prison Burials – Prison and jail inmates may have been interred in the burial grounds of the facility, especially if their families had turned their backs on them or there was no family known or surviving.

Where Are They?

The examples described above may give you some ideas about those elusive ancestral burials you’ve been seeking. Of all the events in a person’s history, the place of interment can often the most difficult to discover. A proper search should include a review of all the information for the individual and his or her family members – spouses, parents, siblings, children, grandparents, and other relatives. An essential question to ask is, “When and where were they last seen alive?” It really is a case of having to narrow the range of time period and location and then begin searching from there.


About George G Morgan

George G. Morgan is president of Aha! Seminars, Inc., and an internationally recognized genealogy expert who presents in the U.S., Canada, England, on cruise ships, and though webinars. He is the co-host of The Genealogy Guys Podcast, the longest running genealogical podcast with thousands of listeners around the globe. His company also produces the Genealogy Connection podcast, and The Genealogy Guys Blog. George is also a prolific writer, with twelve books to his credit including the fourth edition How to Do Everything: Genealogy (McGraw-Hill) and a chapter in the new Professional Genealogy: Preparation, Practice & Standards. He is a regular writer for the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly, Family Tree Magazine, In-Depth Genealogy, Internet Genealogy, and Your Genealogy Today. He was won writing awards from the Association of Professional Genealogists and the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors. He has served as an officer or board member of numerous societies, as a national conference planner, and a national and international genealogy tour guide. He also is a member of numerous genealogical societies in the US and the UK. He lives in Odessa, Florida.

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One thought on “Motivations for Burial Site Selection

  • Clorinda Madsen

    Other burial locations to consider, especially as they became more common, for infant and child deaths, is in special parts of the cemetery reserved especially for them, sometimes called “Angel Gardens”. These tend to be lower or “at cost” burial sites for those facing the deaths of their children. Also, infants might be buried on top of another relative in the same plot. Sometimes the headstone is edited to reflect this, sometimes not, but the sexton records may contain the information.