5 Fall Genealogy Activities to Do in October

By Ashlee Peck

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Cemetery in fall.
Investigate the spookier side of your family history by visiting a cemetery.

Not only is October Family History Month, it’s also a perfect opportunity explore the spookier side of genealogy: visiting burial places and exploring death records. Here are five fall-ish family history activities to help you celebrate the season!

1. Visit a family’s burial place

Do this in-person if you can, or virtually if it’s too far away. (If you’re searching from afar, turn to top cemetery websites to locate your ancestor’s place of rest.) Find your relatives’ headstones. Study them for clues about their lives. Take clear, close-up photographs of their markers; you may want to take several until you get the optimum angle and lighting. (Think twice before doing a gravestone rubbing.)

Next, look for other family burials nearby. Image those individually and then take a few “group shots” to show how they’re clustered. Walk around the cemetery to learn more about the context in which that person was laid to rest. Was the cemetery segregated into chronological, ethnic or religious sections? Take a minute to appreciate what you see, as Ashlee Peck did in her cemetery tour last fall. This article is packed with tips to help you get the most out of a trip to the cemetery.

2. Image tombstones

Help document the world’s cemeteries before inscriptions fade and stones crumble away—it happens faster than you’d think. Search for burial grounds near you at Find A Grave>Cemeteries>Browse by Location, or by using the BillionGraves website (Research>Cemetery Search) or mobile app (Cemeteries):

fall genealogy
fall genealogy

Watch for cemeteries that don’t have few or no tombstones listed (on BillionGraves, those without any entries show up as blue icons). Follow instructions on the site to take and upload photos of individual gravestones. Transcribe them, too, if you like.

For bonus points, respond to someone’s request for a tombstone image. At BillionGraves, watch for an orange icon on the cemetery map, which means someone has requested a gravestone image. Select that cemetery, scroll down and click on a Photo Request and follow the instructions. At Find A Grave, go to an individual cemetery’s home page and click on Photo Requests.

3. Gather obituaries

Review your family tree for all relatives who have died within the last 120 years, or even the last 150 years. These are the ones most likely to have had obituaries or death notices appear in newspapers. Gather as many as you can find for each relative; sometimes different papers ran slightly different versions of an obituary. Places to look for obituaries:

  • The free U.S. newspaper website, Chronicling America, and other collections of digitized newspapers online.
  • Huge collections of indexed obituaries are at the free (US, GenealogyBank Obituaries, 1980-2014) and subscription website (try the US Obituary Collection, 1930-2018 and Historical Newspapers, BMD, 1851-2003). Don’t neglect smaller collections obituaries at these websites; search by record type, narrowing the category down to death records. If you participate in the FamilySearch global Family Tree, you can explore obituaries that have already been found for your ancestors.
  • Genealogy subscription websites and both have large collections of digitized newspapers you can search yourself. At Findmypast, go to Search > Newspapers & Periodicals > U.S. and World Newspapers. Enter a name and any desired keywords across the top of the screen and run the search. Afterward, narrow the search results by state and even by newspaper. At, go to Research>Newspapers. Run a search for your relatives from this main page, or choose a collection in which to target your search.
  • Contact local-to-your-ancestors public libraries and genealogical societies to see what resources they offer for finding obituaries.

4. Review death certificates

Do another sweep of your family tree for death records. Do you have copies of these (not just indexes) for every possible relative in the past 150 years? If you don’t, search for online collections you may have missed by Googling terms such as death records Pennsylvania genealogy or searching the FamilySearch wiki for articles about specific locales, which may point to resources you need.

If you don’t find any civil death records online, the FamilySearch wiki may tell you why not (perhaps the state doesn’t make them publicly available). Sometimes death certificates are available but you have to contact a state or county office to request a copy. The searches recommended in this section will likely include results that tell you how to do this. Ordering individual records can be pricey, but for key relatives, may be worth it.

5. Look for alternative records

Even if you find a headstone, obituary and a death certificate, other end-of-life records may reveal even more about your family history—or lead you back to missing records. For example, I wasn’t able to obtain a death certificate for Henry Fox because these are restricted by Colorado law. But I contacted the cemetery office, which pointed me to the funeral home, which sent me a copy of his file. The file contained a copy of his death certificate and several versions of his obituary.

Records you might search for include:

Mine these documents for every genealogical clue they may hold. Compare those clues across all the records you find, to verify what you’ve learned and watch for inconsistencies. Then use those clues to learn even more (for example, follow that mention of a school, church or job in an obituary to related records). Death-related records don’t just tell you about someone’s death: they often reveal that person’s life, too.

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