Thursday, November 18, 2010

Pitfalls in Using Online Searchable Cemetery Databases

Now that I've introduced to you two new searchable cemetery databases, it is probably a good idea to review some of the reasons you might not find the burial record you're looking for. This is, of course, assuming that the person is truly buried in that particular cemetery. I may miss a few reasons why your search may result in a "false negative," but it may be interesting to you nevertheless to read what I have to say.

Remember that these cemeteries never thought in the many years they were in existence before the Internet that their records would ever be made available in this way to the public. Most of the cemetery from their inception used burial ledgers and/or burial cards which they file either by society name, year of burial, alphabetically by surname, etc. Many of the office help who wrote out these burial records over the years made errors in recording the deceased's burial information, which in fact was often taken from the death certificate or burial permit. The death certificate might have been filled out incorrectly for one reason or the other, either the fault of the person who filled it out (e.g. at the funeral parlor), or the person that gave them the information, family member or not, gave them the information. Then once the cemetery office recorded the information, this became the official record, not necessarily what appeared on the gravestone. Also while inputting or uploading the data into the new cemetery databases, errors could have been made.

Also, with a small percentage of records (in the case of Montefiore, more than 7,000 burials have no date of death associated with them out of a total of 140,000 or so burials, i.e. five percent) there are no dates of death listed within the database's records which probably occurred because there was no date on the burial card or it was illegible for some reason.

In addition, the name that is in the cemetery's burial records, whether it be the deceased's given name or surname, could be different (either by a letter or two, or in one place the name could be in English instead of Yiddish or vice versa with regards to the deceased's given name). You might find that in the cemetery database a woman's maiden name might be used, but on the gravestone their married name is used. Some cemeteries will list a woman's burial info twice, once with her maiden name and once with her married name....Go figure.

With the Montefiore databases you can't use Soundex, so you need to be spot on in what you enter a name into the search fields, although you can just enter the first two letters of a given name or surname and still be successful.

Just by reviewing one society plot, one of Montefiore's landsmanshaftn plots associated with Lomza, Poland, I've found at least a ten percent error or omission of names. Of course, this is just one plot, but I imagine that there are errors in most plots to one degree or the other for the reasons mentioned above. The Lomza society in question is abbreviated in the deceased's burial record, i.e. "Chev Poale Zedek An Lomze" whose full name is Chevera Poale Zedek Anshe Lomze. In one burial record one record "Lomze" was spelled "Lodge," so if one had the ability to search by society name (as one could with the other seven New York cemetery databases), one would miss this burial record, if you entered "Lomze" into the search field for society name and had all of the information exactly correct.

Other errors you may find that lead you to false search results include a difference of a single letter in a surname, usually a vowel (so if you can't find who you're looking for, change the vowel and see if that works); reversal of letters, e.g. Finkelstien instead of Finkelstein, or Sohn instead of Shon. There may be a double consonant in the database, e.g. Feller, and a single consonant on the stone, e.g. Feler. As mentioned earlier, a Yiddish given name may appear in the cemetery's records with one spelling, e.g. Chaia, while on the gravestone Ida may appear (or vice versa.)

Note too that these searchable cemetery burial databases are especially useful for finding burial information on babies, whose gravestones are either non-existend, devoid of any inscription either by intent or because the material used for their small gravestone eroded very easily, or even that the ground "swallowed up" the stone as it sank into the ground either partly or fully over time.

There are also a number of double entries within these databases. Now remember that when someone loses an appendage, e.g. an arm, leg, foot, most often this is listed as a separate burial. The deceased's name is listed the same, but their burial record numbers will be different, and perhaps the burial location too (within the same plot of course). Sometimes, except for the burial record number, all the info is the same. So either this is a duplicate, an error in the burial record number so the burial was entered twice, once erroneously, or somehow on the same day they lost a body part and passed away and both are buried separately but near each other in the same society plot. Strange but probably true in some instances.

I am also not convinced that every date found under the Montefiore databases "date of death" field is the date of death or burial. But you can only search by month and year of death using their databases, so the day itself doesn't matter as far as searching is concerned. If the death was in the New York metro area, one can always check the death index at if the date of death was early enough, to verify a spelling or a date of death. Past 1965, give or take, you can also check the SSDI (Social Security Death Index) to verify spelling or date of death.

That's it for now. Remember I'm not in contact with these cemeteries per se and cannot request that they change the burial record of someone in your family. If you find an error, you will have to contact the cemetery yourself, and odds are, you'll have to supply them with an official document, e.g. the person's death certificate, to compel them to change their records.

You might also like to read a previously published webpage I've written about searching cemetery databases. If you'd like to read it, please click here.

If you'd like to begin searching the databases of the Montefiore cemeteries, click here and then on the appropriate cemetery name. Then click on the word "Locator" at the top of that page.

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