Gravestones and dates of death – not always accurate

I’ve looked at hundreds of gravestones for relatives in the last couple of years, at least. Perhaps that number is in the thousands. I don’t keep a count, but the number is fairly high. What’s on gravestones is usually correct, but not always so. Do you know offhand how old your parents are? What about aunts or uncles or grandparents? Most of us do, but sometimes we are wrong.

My dad died before I was born. Had he been an only child I would have been the person mostly likely to fill out my grandpa Weiss’ application for a death certificate when he died in 1988. He was 84, but I didn’t know that at the time. I just knew he was in his 80s somewhere. When you send those in, the recorder’s office doesn’t fact-check them. They rely on your signature and the doctor’s signature that what you put down is accurate. And that’s the information that usually gets put on gravestones these days. The informant gives the information to the funeral director who fills out the application, everyone signs it, and then that information is sent off to the recorder, the Social Security Administration, and the people who make the grave marker.

So usually the information is accurate, but the year of birth can be off sometimes. I’ve seen that a couple dozen times, particularly on older graves.

I can tell a year of birth is incorrect because lots of records created throughout a person’s life reference their age, and many of those are available. Census records in particular give an approximate age. For instance, the approximate ages for a person might be 5, 14, 15, every succeeding decade until late in life. Then the last census before they died gives an approximate age of 79, and the year of birth on their gravestone matches that, I’m going to look at it with suspicion. A caretaker probably just didn’t know exactly how old grandpa was.

I’ve also seen cases where someone appears in documents well before the year of birth on the marker. One relative appeared on the 1870 census, so I know he wasn’t born in 1872 as his grave indicates. People lie about their ages fairly frequently. Sometime they want to appear older to join the military. Sometimes they want to appear younger to their prospective spouse. The lie ends up on their grave.

But not only that, the date of death can be incorrect too. You’d think that people would know that because it just happened, barring cases when a body is discovered an unknown period after death. But I’ve run into a couple cases where it isn’t. Usually when this happens I’m pretty sure that the family placed the gravestone years after death. Perhaps they waited for a spouse to die before engraving. Perhaps one couldn’t be afforded at the time of death. My third great grandparents Knapp have markers with only their initials and surnames scratch into them. We’re currently considering placing a nicer marker there.

I’ve probably missed a few cases because I haven’t even looked for corroborating evidence. I suspect I can generally rely on the date of death on headstones. Finding the 0.25% of cases where it happens isn’t worth the effort for distance relatives.

It’s harder to detect than issues with the birth date. There aren’t a lot of documents that are functionally public after someone dies. There’s a will and whatever else is filed in probate, and the death certificate. Since the person isn’t living any longer, they aren’t creating a continuing paper trail.

In the two cases I’ve found, what showed that the date of death was wrong was finding the contemporary obituary or other references in newspapers.

For example, here’s the headstone for my third great uncle Richard Smith Blake:

Headstone for Richard and Elizabeth Blake
Headstone for Richard and Elizabeth Blake

It has a date of death of 27 December 1897. But then I was looking at the probate record, which was dated in February of 1897 and gave a date of death of 29 December 1896. That didn’t match up. I thought it might be possible I was misreading the handwriting. Lots of rural legal documents are in an almost illegible scribble made worse by poor microfilming, including this one.

Luckily, the local paper, The Ackley World (of Iowa) for 1896 and 1897 has been scanned and is online. And there was an obituary on page 1:

Obituary for Richard Blake
Obituary for Richard Blake

The scan is not the clearest, but it was most certainly published on 1 January 1897, nearly 12 months before the date of death on his headstone. My best guess is that the headstone was placed when his wife Elizabeth died almost 15 years later. Someone asked the family what to put on for Richard, and they ended up giving them the wrong date.

Now the lesson that professional genealogists would tell you comes of this is that one should never trust headstones alone and to get corroboration for everything. Strictly speaking, that’s true. But that’s not the lesson I take. If I run across discrepancies like this, I dig deeper. However, unless the person is a direct ancestor, it isn’t important enough for me to spend the effort to double- and triple-check everything. If a third cousin once removed has a year of death on his grave, that’s good enough for me. Richard Blake is my third great uncle by marriage. Had I not had the record of his will that contradicted the headstone, I wouldn’t have cared if the year was off by one.

Mary (Murphy) Parker Found!

I’ve just had the most exciting genealogy breakthrough!

Here’s the first piece of background: My great great grandmother (one of them) was Mary Parker. She was born in Canada to Irish immigrants (both born about 1803) named Patrick Parker and Mary Murphy Parker in about 1841. The family came to Grant County Wisconsin and lived there at least from 1860 to 1870. She married William Dennis Ryan and died in 1874. That part part is all pretty established. But Patrick Parker and his wife Mary disappeared after that. I know of at least four other descendants of the Parkers who have been trying to find out what happened to them. Most of the children moved to Iowa between 1865 and 1875. We thought they might have dispersed after their parents died. One speculated that perhaps they moved back to Canada and that’s where they died. She even hired a genealogist to dig into cemetery records in the townships in Ontario where they were known to have lived. But no luck. (Some of the Parker grandchildren did emigrate to Canada.)

I’ve for sure found Mary (Murphy) Parker. I think I may have found Patrick Parker.

More background. This is somewhat involved. I describe it all because it shows the serendipitous trails these breakthrough take.

Since I will be doing the cross country road trip next month, I decided to flesh out my family tree some more so I could prioritize things to research when I go through Iowa. I’ve already have nearly complete trees for two of the children, Mary Parker Ryan and Stephen Parker. This spring I started on Patrick Parker’s son Patrick Parker. He married Carrie Ulrich of Eau Claire and they moved to Iowa where they had a number of children. I finished the basic portion of the tree Tuesday morning morning. It’s a big branch of the tree. I got about half of that done in 4 days, which was a lot of work.

I moved on to the next child, Alice Parker. Someone else already figured out she married a John Scallon. They moved to Iowa, then Chicago. Of course, I like to check everyone else’s work. One of the things I usually do is go look on Find a Grave which is attempting to catalog all graves using volunteers. Bingo! Alice Scallon’s grave is there, added and photographed just this August.

I looked at the photographer’s contributor page, and it has a link to a web site in which he has guides to several cemeteries in Franklin County Iowa area. One of them lists a Patrick Parker, died 28 Apr 1874, aged 72 years. Hmmm, I think. That’s an almost exact fit to what I know about my 3rd great grandfather.

Grave marker for Patrick Parker in Saint Mary's Cemetery, Franklin County Iowa
Grave marker for Patrick Parker in Saint Mary's Cemetery, Franklin County Iowa

But that’s a common name and there are probably four or five dozen Patrick Parkers that would match. Still, the presence of Alice Scallon in the same cemetery gives it some connection.

Next step is to see if any other site has information on the Patrick Parker buried there. does not. Neither does the W.P.A. grave catalog made in the 1930s. (To boost the economy during the depression, the feds paid people to transcribe all the cemeteries in Iowa.) And I checked the weekly Ackley World newspaper for the issues following 28 April 1874. Then I got the bright idea to see if I could find Mary Parker nearby in any of the census records.

Bingo! There’s a Mary Parker living in Osceola Township (Franklin County), Iowa in 1885, aged 83 and a widow. Again, it might not be her though. I added that record to my tree and tagged it speculative. Mary Parker is a common name.

Mary Parker in 1885 Census
Mary Parker in Osceola Township in 1885 Iowa Census

So the next thing I did was go back to the guide that fellow made and look at Patrick Parker again, in case I missed something. Only this time I accidentally hit next (when searching for Parker) twice, and lo and behold, there was another Parker in the cemetery: Elizabeth Parker Blake. And her birth date matched up with Elizabeth Parker, daughter of Patrick and Mary Murphy. So now there are two daughters of Patrick Parker buried in the cemetery, along with someone who could be my Patrick Parker.

But then I noticed something. Elizabeth Blake’s husband is Richard Smith Blake. And the family that Mary Parker is living with in the 1885 census is that of R.S. and Lizzie Blake.

That has to be my third great grandmother, Mary Parker) in the 1885 census. Got to be. Alive ten years after all the researchers thought her dead, and in a completely different location from where they’ve been looking (as far as I know).

I still don’t have confirmation that buried in the Saint Mary’s Cemetery is my third great grandfather. But it’s looking like a good possibility and worth researching. Hopefully I’ll be able to find something in the state archives when I visit Iowa.