Sunday, March 9, 2014

Bad assumption

What if you read this in a cemetery book?

Aug. 1, 1879 … Aug. 5, 1964
Wife of James W. Young

Jul. 20, 1897 … Dec. 4, 1966
Hus. of Cora Lee Reese Young

This is taken from a real cemetery book.  Do you see a problem or at least a potential problem?  James is 17 years younger than Cora.  A man marrying a woman 17 years his senior is not very commonplace so this situation warrants a closer look.  But this is in a published cemetery book so it has to be correct, right?  The markers actually say Wife of and Hus. of because that is how the compiler transcribed it, right?


Here are the actual markers

Reese, Cora 1964Copyright © 2007 Kathy Margrave, used with permission.


Young, James 1966-01Copyright © 2007 Kathy Margrave, used with permission.


Cora’s marker clearly states that she was the wife of James N. Young not James W. Young.  When you look at James’ marker there is nothing there at all about he being the husband of anyone.  The compilers of this book ASSUMED that these two were married because they had the same last name and they were buried next to each other.  The one marker says “wife of James” so they ASSUMED the middle initial was wrong and they corrected it for you. 

So how are these two people actually connected?   Cora Lee Reese was married to James Nathaniel Young1 and James William Young was their son.2

Don’t believe everything you read.  Just because it is in print doesn’t mean it is correct.  In this case a cemetery book isn’t your best evidence, photographs of the markers are.  If you are surveying cemeteries, photographs are best.  In lieu of a photograph ACCURATE transcriptions are essential, no more and no less than what is actually on the marker.  If the marker is damaged in some way and hard to read, then just say so and say that it is your best guess or give possible alternates such as “Jan. 8, 1850 OR Jun. 8, 1850, marker worn and hard to read.”

One thing I wanted to add about cemetery markers specifically.  I have made a big deal about how important it is to photograph markers or at the very least transcribe them accurately,  however, you need to understand that the information on the marker itself should also be suspect.  Who was the informant for the information inscribed on the marker?  Most of the time you won’t know this.  Just keep this in mind and always try to find other evidence/records that can help you piece together the person’s vital statistics and timeline and don’t rely just on a grave marker.

1 Columbia County, Georgia, Marriage Book F: 100, Young-Reese, 1894; Probate Court, Appling. 

2 Young family birthdates; privately held by Michele Lewis (Harlem, Georgia). 1991. Scrap of paper found in Gordon Sanders Lewis' personal effects at his death in 1991. The paper lists the full names and birth and death dates of Gordon's grandparents James Nathaniel Young (31 August 1869 - 03 November 1912), Jessie Cora Lee (Reese) Young (01 August 1879 - 05 August 1965) and his uncle James William Young (1897 - 04 December 1966). It is unknown who authored the note… 1900 U.S. census, Columbia County, Georgia, population schedule, Militia District 131, enumeration district (ED) 6, sheet 10A, p. 86, dwelling 169, family 169, Nathan Young household; digital images, ( : accessed 11 Aug 2008); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm T623, roll 190. 


Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Excellent post and warnings. I find it most irritating when internet-gravesite posters include women's maiden names and full dates of birth/death when neither are present on the actual markers.

    And this is not a new practice. Cemetery readings published in 19th- and 20th-century books and journals quite often include the authors' interpolations that also are not on the stones, with no author explanation of what was added. These items are endlessly repeated in genealogical compendia (including trees), by persons who did not bother to check out the facts. And how many times do published works state "Jane Smith Doe died DD MMM YYYY, according to her gravestone in XX Cemetery?" Never mind that "Smith" was not on the stone nor in her death record nor in any other record.

    Thanks again, and I urge this to be posted again at least annually!

  2. It is fine to include that information AS LONG AS YOU NOTE WHERE YOU ACTUALLY GOT IT FROM!

  3. Hi! I am leading a class in cemetery research at a free seminar next month. May I show your article on screen? No print outs, and of course I would make a proper citation. Thanks!

    1. That would be fine with me. Have a great class!