Missing Tombstones


Photo courtesy of Cousin Becky, Find-a-grave

Last week I wrote about my awesome find locating the deed for one of John and Jane Duer’s children, Mary, in Mercer County, Ohio.  I mentioned that no one knows where John Duer was buried and that it is my guess he is buried next to his first wife, Jane.  

It is frustrating when we can’t find a burial location so before I get into why I believe that is where his body lies, I want to take a moment to list reasons of why someone may not have a tombstone.

1.  Lack of Money – many families, especially if a breadwinner died in his/her prime, would have certainly been impacted by the loss of income.  If it is between feeding the children and memorializing the dead, it is understandable that the living become a priority over the tombstone. 

2.  Family Dissension – unfortunately, as we all know too well, families don’t always get along.  In my own, I know of a brother and sister who lived only a few miles from one another but did not speak after the death of their mother due to a disagreement over the mother’s care in a nursing home in her last year of life.  The sister had no other living relatives when she unexpectedly passed except her brother and a few step-siblings that lived far away from her.  The sister’s friends reached out to the brother when she died, taking up a collection and paying for the cremation.  They wanted to know what to do with her ashes but the brother stated he didn’t care.  The brother emailed me two months after his sister’s death to inform me she had died.  He never told me about the ashes or the disagreement.  I sent my condolences via an online memorial site.  The friends saw my post and contacted me inquiring what I would like to do since I appeared to be the next closest relative to the brother.  I accepted the ashes.  I paid for the internment in the cemetery where the mother is buried as the friends stated that was the deceased’s wish.  I did not pay for a stone as I believe that would be out of line while the brother is still alive. Perhaps I will have a small stone placed there someday. But what happens if the brother outlives me?  Then there will most likely never be a stone.  If a researcher ever checked with the cemetery, the records will clearly show that I requested the internment and where the location was.  I do not own the rights to the deceased’s Find-a-grave or Billion Graves memorial so no information has been placed there.  Perhaps someday I will and then I will add the burial location.  Sadly, in the interim, no one seems to have been concerned where the cremains were interred.  

3.  There is NO Burial Site – Regarding cremains, the family may have scattered the ashes as requested by the deceased. Placing a tombstone in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico just isn’t an option!

4.  Deceased Requests No Memorial – The family may be keeping with the wishes of the deceased who wants the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” to be literal.

5.Religious Preference – My example here is poor because I really don’t know if this was the case with my husband’s 4th great paternal grandfather, Wilson Williams (1754-1831).  He is buried next to his wife, Margaret Hicks Williams, in Christ Church Cemetery, Nassau New York.  She has a lovely stone.  He has zilch.  The family could afford a stone and there is no indication that there was family dissension.  Although his death location is not noted in the current church’s records, it was recorded in an old work of cemetery transcriptions by Josephine C. Frost in 1913.  (Thank you, Josephine!)  In what appears to be empty space next to Margaret was once  “a common field stone marked W.W.”  In a past blog, I wrote that Wilson was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church and a common burial practice was marking a grave with a field stone.  Over the years, the stone has been lost and for a time, so, too, was our knowledge of where Wilson was buried since the church cemetery records are no longer in the church at that site.  If not for the Frost transcription we would still be wondering.

6. The Missing – for those individuals that are no longer in touch with their family for any number of reasons, a falling out, an abduction, etc., the location of their burial is unknown so family cannot place a stone.  Some families do place a memorial to the deceased in a cemetery as evidenced by the many fallen soldiers interred overseas who have a memorial in their hometown.  

7. Avoid Remembering – deceased murderers often do not have a stone to ward off those who seek out the grave to disrespect it.  Being eternally unnamed and forgotten is a final punishment for heinous crimes committed.

8.  The Stone was Lost – tombstones sink, they fall over, they are vandalized or some idiot decides they would make great construction material and steals them.  My 4th great paternal grandfather, Thomas Duer’s stone had toppled over in a rural Ohio cemetery that had become abandoned.  A local genealogy group righted the stone and moved it to be in line with the other stones but its present location is not exactly where he was buried.  

9.  The Burial Site Relocated -My husband’s 2nd great maternal grandfather’s child, Lincoln Mordecai Harbaugh’s (1846-1847) was once interred in a cemetery adjacent to the family church in Waynesboro, Franklin, Pennsylvania.  The church sold the property long after he died and the family relocated to Indiana.  His remains are interred in a group burial site in Green Hill Cemetery after the new owners wanted to expand the building.  

10. Chaos Following an Emergency – In some parts of the world today, due to the pandemic, those who have died are being buried in mass graves.  This is not a new phenomena.  During an ongoing emergency the need to inter takes precedence over individual burials.  Whether the site will eventually be marked with a memorial may or may not occur.

Perhaps you can think of more reasons why tombstones might not be found. 

In the case of my John Duer (1801-1885), I can only point to examining further family dissension as the reason why he doesn’t seem to have a stone.  At the time of John’s death he had a second wife and 8 surviving children, 4 of whom were prosperous and have elaborate tombstones of their own (Maria, John B., Sarah Jane and James William).  John died in Jefferson Township, Adams County, Indiana where he was residing with wife Margaret Ann Martz Searight Duer.  He knew he was ill as he made a will in August 1884.  He did not name his prosperous children in the will or his daughter Mary Ann, possibly because they didn’t need the money or perhaps, because he was not on speaking terms with them.  Children Angeline, Charles and Lucinda were all named to receive John’s property, along with his wife.  I also know from the will that John requested “that my body be burried (sic) in a manner suitable with my condition in life.” John wasn’t well to do but he did own 80 acres that he farmed and had few debts at the time of his death.  A tombstone was not against his religious beliefs; he was raised Presbyterian as a child but there is no church membership found for him as an adult.  

Mary “Jane,” his first wife who died after his second marriage and a few months after he had a son with his new wife, is buried in Kessler Cemetery, Chattanooga, Mercer, Ohio.  The cemetery records are not complete and do not state who or when her plot was purchased.  The family owns a plot next to her that is sunken and may contain the body of John.  Family tales state he is buried in Kessler.  His second wife is also buried in Kessler but not close to Jane.  There are tombstones on both sides of Margaret’s gravesite so he is not buried next to her.  

No death certificate has been found for John, nor an obituary or church records that may shed light on where he was interred.

Perhaps John’s older children did not think he needed a marker as his name is on Jane’s stone.  It would have been awkward putting a stone next to Jane’s that said “John Duer, husband of Margaret.”  Perhaps the children decided to ignore the situation and leave his plot unmarked.  Since Jane died AFTER John’s remarriage, her stone’s inscription of “Wife of John Duer” holds a clue.  Perhaps she didn’t remarry as she believed that one only marries once.  Maybe she had no preference but her surviving children had the stone engraved as a way to voice their unacceptance of the second marriage.  

The only way I’ll ever know if someone is buried next to Jane is if ground penetrating radar is used and I’m not planning on doing that.  Even if someone was found to be buried there I wouldn’t know for sure it was John unless the body was exhumed.  So, I’ll have to leave this Duer mystery unsolved for now.  Sigh.