A Sunken Stone, A Story Found

As cemetery enthusiasts, we’ve seen the many ways people around the world honor their dead, from the moss-covered mausoleums of Edinburgh to candle-lit cemeteries in Italy. We’ve admired the small stones placed on Jewish graves in Jerusalem, the walls of urns in Japan, and Paris’ catacombs where bones are stacked and patterned in the underground ossuary. We love wandering through cemeteries with shady paths that invite us to meander and read the epitaphs to those gone before.

Photo credit Michelle

However a person is laid to rest, there is one thing all of these places have in common – they are vast libraries of unknown and untold stories. Sometimes the stories come to us easily, like following a gently worn path our ancestors left for us many years ago. Other times, the stories take hours of time and research to uncover. Each headstone, rock, photograph, or candle represents a life lived. A life that was undoubtedly filled with hopes and dreams, happiness and heartbreak. Each lie in rest with their mark left behind, their mark on our lives and also what was left in remembrance on their marker. Why do Find a Grave volunteers spend so much time photographing and documenting graves? Because we understand that this small act of service opens the door for others to discover their ancestors’ stories. 

Frank Delaney said, “To understand and reconnect with our stories, the stories of the ancestors, is to build our identities.” When one walks up to a tombstone or a memorial site, there arises a feeling of brevity and wonder. You might run a finger across the etched birth and death dates. You know that between birth and death, there is a lifetime of stories. An understanding arises that they have been where you are now – and someday you will be where they now rest. When you stand before the grave of a loved one, you understand that their story intermingles with yours. Their influence has contributed to your own story. 

Photo credit: Paul Vogt

One of our contributors, Paul Vogt, was recently on the receiving end of an amazing act of kindness. Paul’s great aunt Mary passed away in Detroit, Michigan, in 1905. Contaminated water caused a typhoid fever epidemic that swept through the city. Mary contracted the disease and died when she was just 22. Her family was devastated by the loss of their beautiful, dark-haired daughter. They purchased a marble headstone and Mary’s memory was immortalized. Years turned into decades and those who knew Mary passed on.

A few months back, Paul received a message from Jacquie, another contributor. In her research regarding cemeteries in Detroit she came across a memorial with information about headstones found underwater in a lake, about an hour outside of the city. She searched Find a Grave and learned that Paul managed a memorial matching the description of one of the headstones included with that information. Jacquie messaged Paul and ultimately she connected him with another friend who helped with her research and knew more about two of the Detroit cemeteries and a gravestone monument company. Like following a trail of breadcrumbs, Paul was led to where the stone could be found. He located the property owner and learned the stone was still in the lake (nobody knows how it got there!). It’s possible that the headstones found in the lake were were not originally placed on the graves because they had an inscription mistake.

Amazingly, the timing was perfect as the new owner was having his breakwall redone and offered to retrieve the headstone from the water if possible. Crews salvaged the headstone and Paul immediately came to retrieve it. He took his truck (and a strong friend) and picked up the 400-pound marble memorial to Mary. Because the cemetery where Mary is buried no longer allows marble markers, they brought the stone back to Paul’s home where it remains.

Photo credit: Paul Vogt

For Paul, this series of coincidences was more than that. “It’s amazing that my aunt was in the news after 110 years, amazing that a Find a Grave member informed me of the lost stone, amazing that I was able to retrieve the stone, and right after that, found a family scrapbook that had a picture of Mary in it.” Mary’s story is now connected to Paul’s story. He will never be able to look at Mary’s photo without contemplating the miracle of finding her memorial. We like to think Mary is smiling over the relationship she has formed with her great-nephew from beyond the grave. 

Photo credit: Paul Vogt

The poet Rumi wrote, “On the day I die, when I’m being carried toward the grave, don’t weep. Don’t say, He’s gone! He’s gone. Death has nothing to do with going away. The sun sets and the moon sets, but they’re not gone. Death is a coming together. The tomb looks like a prison, but it’s really release into union. The human seed goes down in the ground like a bucket into the well… It grows and comes up full of some unimagined beauty.” The stories we discover and share are that unimagined beauty coming into full light.

In the end, not everyone’s resting place is going to be the same. It may be a manicured or overgrown cemetery, ashes scattered over a waterfall, a respectfully placed urn, a raised mound under the shade of a tree, or a marble stone immersed in a lake. Each grave represents the story of those who came before us. Thank you to all of our Find a Grave contributors. Your efforts help others uncover new stories every day! 

129 comments

    • So Mary’s stone was never at any time placed at her testing place? If it was but and removed for whatever reason why couldn’t the stone be grandfathered in and returned to her resting place dispite the new no marble rule?

  1. Paul thanks for sharing your story. I find all stories so interesting. Keep up the good work.

  2. I can appreciate this story. I helped a friend locate the cemetery where her grandmother was buried in Arizona. She went to the office and they took her to the exact location. Guess what no marker. She had to get a trowel and go down 6 inches to find the marker that had over time been buried. Now thanks to her photographs that I’ve added to findagrave the tombstone will no longer be missing. Again thank you for sharing your story.
    Pat Keenan – Taos Mountain Chapter DAR

    • My husb had a similar experience while trying to find his grandfather’s grave. Altho not 6″ below the surface, it was covered by grass. The cemetery manager went w/ us on the 3rd attempt to find it & accidentally stepped on the small bronze marker. Otherwise, we may not have found it at all.

  3. I guess it’s my turn to say THANKS to Paul and Pat regarding the stories relating to their Marker Stories, not so much for their stores but for the memories that my all too often visitation with those gone by visiting their markers. It has been said that each person that has passed will be alive whenever someone says their name.

    I’d like to think that is so because I’ve always believed there had to be something more of us than just living our lives and resting in our deaths. Having our names spoken by relatives and those who didn’t actually know us but have visited us by gazing at our markers and saying our names brings to life our lives.

    Thank you to all those dedicated volunteers that have paved the way for so many names to have been spoken.

    A.D. “Dewey” Dawson
    Find A Grave member for 19yrs & 9 Months

  4. A very interesting story! I am glad Paul was faithful to his family. We all search that same path.

  5. Enjoyed reading this and thank you for sharing. I have been a member of Find A Grave for 15 1/2 years.

  6. Regarding “Because the cemetery where Mary is buried no longer allows marble markers, they brought the stone back to Paul’s home where it remains.”

    Paul might want to know that many cemeteries ceased to “allow” marble grave stones because keeping the cemetery mowed and presentable is time-consuming and expensive. However, most such cemeteries allow markers if they are flush with the ground. If that is the case for the one where Mary was interred, he might want to consider laying the stone down on its back, inset into the earth at her grave.

    Another point: if the cemetery association had the stones removed and thrown in the lake to get rid of them in order to make lot-keeping easier or less expensive, that should have been recorded in the meeting minutes of the association. Such an act might have violated local, county, or state laws against disturbance of grave-sites. In some places those laws were passed to keep markers in place, Removing those markers renders the graves essentially anonymous, which in most states is unlawful because that allows the lot to be re-sold. The markers should, instead, have had any obelisks or ornaments detached, been dismounted from plinths, and then buried face up and level with the soil.

    I make mention of this because if they were unlawfully removed, that might give him some leverage with the cemetery association to allow Mary’s stone to be returned using a maintenance-friendly format. I suggest he check first with an attorney, then approach the cemetery association with a gentle request for access to the association’s meeting minutes records that most states require them to keep. In any event, state authorities should be notified of the presence of those markers in the lake.

    • More information about the headstones in the lake can be found here. Likely the stones were not used due to mistakes on the stones.

      • Thanks for these details. I’ve been to a number of cemeteries where, just into the woods a little distance, is a pile of markers. I asked and found there was something wrong with the marker, or the marker was replaced with a newer one. They chose to just dump the now unneeded markers in a pile in the woods. That isn’t to say all instances of markers laying in the woods are there validly, but so far, every pile I’ve seen was there for valid reasons and NOT due to vandalism or neglect or laziness. Also, it is tragic that the records burned up. I wish there was a way to get access to cemetery records and make an electronic copy of them. I recently worked with one that had everything on index cards. Their records started in the 1880’s and they had all of those cards in a card cabinet, with no copies made. They had maybe 20K cards. I’d love to go scan them so there is some permanent, non-flammable record of what the cards say. The yeoman said the public is not allowed access to the cards, so they wouldn’t let me scan them on a volunteer basis. Pity.

      • @Eric Lucas – “The yeoman said the public is not allowed access to the cards …”

        You do not need to access the cards … in general. You do have a legal right to ask to see and copy the card(s) that relate to your family. Even if you do not have family buried there, you still can help them.

        Ask if they have a computer on which they keep current records. If so, fine, If not, ask if they will accept a donated one – and if nothing else find a cheap old laptop on eBay. Get that running and cleared of any left-over info, and give it to the association secretary/scribe in the name of the association, with the proviso that it must be used only for keeping grave records and that it belongs to the association, not the scribe.

        If they have a computer, ask to see if they also have a scanner. If not, again, look for a cheap one to donate.

        Then sit down with the secretary/scribe and teach them how to use the combination to scan all those cards. Again, offer to do the work on a volunteer basis if they will allow it. It sounds as if there is a lawyer involved with that association, who doubtless has recommended that they not allow the “public” to see the records because of data privacy concerns. You can check with the state attorney general’s office to see if this really is an issue for allowing a single person to access the records to make electronic back-up copies. My AL Post had such reservations, so I became the secretary to get permission to do research in the old meeting minutes.

        Usually, if the records exposure is limited to someone with a legitimate task to make safety backups of the records, it is not a legal issue. However, out of an abundance of caution or disagreements amongst the members, the association can set such limits, so you may have to become very creative to reach you goal.

  7. I would hope that the cemetery might allow an exception considering the circumstances & that it had already been made before the new policy.

  8. Paul a very interesting story to share and am so Happy you found her marker. I have been a member of Find a Grave well over 20 years. I have found many markers and information on relatives from way back when.

  9. Paul,Great story and wonderful ending. There are so many tales to tell but like thousands of stones the story will forever remain untold due to neglect and fallen or broken or the earth has taken over on all the flat stones. I have always gone for theses type of stones as they sink into oblivian. Thank you for sharing this wonderful experience.

  10. What an amazing story! During these troubled times when it seems people are divided, it is good to see and hear a thread of human kindness exists. I too have lost a grandfather and aunts and uncles who died over 100 years ago that I never had a chance to meet. Yet from bits and pieces I found I felt a connection. Thank you to everyone who has supported and contributed to find a grave. You have made many people happy. May God bless you and keep you safe.

  11. I recently helped track down the owner of a military marker found in a load of stone delivered to a job site in the Detroit area as well. It turns out, that when the veteran’s wife passed, the family opted for matching headstones and the military one was discarded. They should be buried deeper at the site and not thrown out, IMO.

    • I spoke to a monument company recently who said when they replace a monument, they bury the old stone at the site, or use it as part of the foundation for the new monument. They felt it was bad ju-ju to take the old monument away and dispose of it elsewhere.

  12. We just discovered a “covered up” headstone at the Oakwood Cemetery, Osawatomie, Miami County, Kansas. I was looking for my great-grand uncle, Dr. Llewellyn W. Jacobs. Dr. Jacobs was born 16 September 1844 in Tempranceville, Accomac County, Virginia and died 3 February 1917 at age 72. His head stone reads, “Llewellyn W. Jacobs, Confederate States Army, February 3, 1917, Metropolitan Guards.
    I had a photo of the headstone so I knew what to look for. First of all, our navigation system took us to the Osawatomie Cemetery instead of the Oakwood Cemetery. We walked the Osawatomie Cemetery for about 10 minutes and finally found a truck with 4 young men from Public Works and asked them for direction to lot 63N. When I said I wanted the Oakwood Cemetery they told me I was in the wrong cemetery and since they were finished with their work, if we followed them, they would take us to the Oakwood Cemetery which was across town. We followed them to a beautiful little cemetery along a river and the 6 of us hunted for 30-40 minutes, unable to locate the headstone – even though I had a photo of it. Finally, we gave up and thanked the young men for their help. One young man had just finished cutting the lawns in the cemetery the day before. As we were going to our car, I saw a obelisk like the one we were searching for but no flat stone in front of it, however there was an indentation in the grass so I went over and ran my foot over the grass and sure enough, that was the grave we were looking for. The 4 young men were driving out of the cemetery so my husband called to them to tell them we found the grave. They came back and marveled that all 6 of us could have missed it. The young man who cuts the lawn said, “I just covered it with clippings when I cut the lawn” and I told him that that’s how grave stones get buried because no one comes back to clean off the flat stones. We tipped them for their time and help – it was above and beyond and went away grateful for finally finding the grave AND we had parked right next to it!!!

      • One of my cousins was convinced an ancestor was buried in a family cemetery so he hired a gp radar & found it. That was many yrs ago.

  13. Great story. Worked on restoring a pioneer cemetery in my town. Some stones sunken in the ground and with a bit of clearing the earth there was more info and inscriptions to be discovered.

  14. What a beautiful story. A genealogist once told me there were 2 deaths. The first death is when someone dies. The second death is when you are no longer remembered. I want to thank all the volunteers for preventing the second death of people who have passed before us.

  15. When I see a story like this one, I wonder what the person from long ago would think, to be told that over a century later they and their story would be remembered and discussed.

  16. This is a wonderful story.

    For years My mother and I would drive through the countryside, often down backroads and barely drivable tracks. Doing so we would sometimes happen upon a tiny cemetery. As a photographer, I started taking photos simply for the sake of taking photos. But this quickly grew into a weekly quest.

    I started photographing each headstone (sometimes with difficulty… far too many are toppled, overgrown, have been piled along walls or against trees. Lots of moss to try and read through. Then, because I did history research as an occupation for years started researching the people whose headstones they were.

    Throughout all this, my Mom who had Alzheimer’s was along for the ride. She would navigate (I let her decide if were were going left or right or straight ahead on our unplanned adventure.) and she was my cemetery spotter. She had an uncanny ability to recognize an iron fence or a cluster of headstones in the trees. We went road-tripping at least once a week and Mom loved it. She would wander around while I photographed. We were the best team.

    Unfortunately, at age 94, her Alzheimer’s started making the trips impossible. She still loved them but on coming home she didn’t recognize our house and became afraid (“I’m lot allowed here”….). The arriving home was creating fear and panic. Our trips based on our shared love of driving ceased.

    I knew it wasn’t going to get better and was preparing for the inevitable need to place her in care.

    Fate had different ideas and in September 2018, Mom fell in her bedroom, broke her hip and pelvis, and died three days later.

    I haven’t been able, what with COVID and depression, to go out to photograph. I did go out a week ago and took photos of a favourite tiny cemetery. But now I discovered that I am unsteady on my feet and I risk falling if I’m on my own.

    What I wouldn’t give to be able to get out and do this full time again…

    • mudhooks – can you find another interested genealogist who could accompany you on your travels? Have you ever compiled a list of the names / information from the photos you have taken

    • Mudhooks – what an awesome adventure for both you and your Mom. I applaud your dedication and determination. So glad you got to spend those trips with your dear Mom – may she rest in peace. I have spent the last 30+ years on genealogy research and enjoy every minute of it. I was blessed to have my Mother and Grandmother “fill in gaps” for many years before they passed away. And with my own failing health, I haven’t been able to get out to cemeteries and research and photograph like I used to.
      Cemeteries do tickle my desire to find out more and more. Thanks to all the folks who submit info to Find-A-Grave.

  17. A cemetery had told me there was no marker on my great grandmother’s grave in Davenport IA. However, a kind Find-A Graver found a small bronze plague there under the sod. Not as dramatic, but appreciated!

  18. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Paul. It was nothing short of miraculous. What a bitter loss it must have been for Mary’s family to lose her at such a young age. She was a beautiful girl. My work on Find a Grave is taken very seriously because I see each person I can help “bring to life” as someone special. Someone who was once just as alive, busy in their lives, and full of hopes and dreams just as we are. That is why I feel dedicated to accuracy and providing as many pictures and documentations with my memorials as I can, but at the same time, keeping things looking professional. I love these new newsletters. They are full of such interesting, valuable information. It makes me feel proud to be a contributing member of Find a Grave.

  19. I love the article but I hope one day people will stop cremation since it makes the person be erased. I agree with you about the body or the cremated remains being interred.

    • I also feel strongly about this and am sad when there is no memorial of that life lived. Everyone deserves to be remembered by even the smallest memorial or a plaque on a wall.

      • Cremation does not mean no memorial. Even when the person requests that ashes be scattered, a cenotaph can be placed at a family plot. My favorite is the guy whose ashes are divided – a portion buried next to his wife, a portion interred in a related military cemetery, and a portion scattered in a favorite place. One well-traveled and well-remembered guy!

  20. There have been some great stories from so many of you. Thanks for sharing. Genealogy is the best!!

  21. Great story I used to take my children on a day off school and made it a game to find names. Thanks

  22. Very touching story. So sad that after 2-3 generations, there’s no one left alive that even shared the same sunlight or air with the deceased. I once read or heard you are not truly gone, until the last breath is taken by the last person who knew you when you were alive. Glad to see that this story is an exception to that.

  23. My husband and I are very interested in a good story even if it is about someone we don’t know, photo of a stranger, or precious antique saved by someone over the years. These things are about people, and people are always interesting! Thanks for posting!

  24. Wanted to add our family story about a marker or lack of one. One of our relatives, on my husband’s mother’s side is Audrey Munson. A name not known today but she was very famous in her time. Among the most notable events in her life was being the model for the Walking Liberty gold piece and possibly modeling for the head on the US Mercury dime (before Roosevelt). She also modeled for hundreds of statues and monuments and even made a silent movie.
    She lived the last part of her life in tragedy as she was committed to a hospital for a mental breakdown and spent just about half of her life committed in an institution. She lived to be 106.
    When she died she was pretty much completely unknown and was buried in the New Haven, NY cemetery, without a marker.
    Many years after her death and burial the small town in New York came to know about her fame. A donation fund was established and enough money was raised to not only give her a much deserved memorial stone, but also an historical marker that was installed on the road outside the cemetery’s gate.
    Now she is remembered and our family is so grateful. The memory stone is indeed very very powerful!

  25. Looked and looked for my brother’s grave no help, the funeral home told me the records were in archives and would be very difficult to retreive. One Memorial Day visiting other gravesites I came across a small faded collection of markers in a scrap metal pile and a guide told me the previous caretakers had removed them from an area where a road was being widened. Devastating!

  26. Someday I hope to figure out how to log in. Maybe I have inactive here for too long.

  27. I am pleasantly surprised as I read the story “A Sunken Stone, A Story Found”. Being a member of Find A Grave, has helped me become a historian with a deep interest in those of the past. A grave marker that is discovered and takes me on a journey that eventually enlightens about a relative or some other person is so rewarding, not only to me but to others who are connected to the deceased person. I am 78 years old now, and I must say that Find A Grave has been a God Send. Thank you Find A Grave for all the work that you have done for us.

    • Thank you Keith F. Greeney for all the work that you have so freely shared in the past with Find-A-Grave. It is always such a wonderful bonus to find someone on FAG that you have been seeking for years. I appreciate each and everyone that has added/submitted information to FAG. Know that your work and determination will be used for generations to come. Blessings.

  28. Has anyone heard of dosing? I have used this for several years!!! Similar to finding water lines. I simply use a metal clothes hanger. Take it apart and cut the twisted end off. Blend the smooth end down about three inches in a L sha
    Simply hold the bent part in you hand (fist) loosely then start walking at the bottom of the grave. After several steps the wires will start crossing. This means there is a body in the grave!!! If it doesn’t work the first time, try it again!! In an attempt by a non believer, I told the gentleman there was one one in the grave. After much shock and dismay he admitted I was right. The wife didn’t want to be buried beside her Husband!!!! Made a believer out of him!! The dosing rods can be purchased but are quite expensive!!! Try it and respond with your luck. Also can detect if it a man or woman or a small child!!

  29. I appreciate the stories and find a grave messages. My brothers and I grew up in a state that was many miles away from relatives. We felt like Orphans. In school, our friends would tell stories of family gatherings. We felt so lonely because we had no stories to tell. As a result, my older brother and I, began researching our ancestors. He said he would keep the information on his computer while I did the “leg work” of visiting cemeteries. One cousin that I had met years previously served as my tour guide. We visited so many graves that a book of our family members was published. Pictures of grave stones were included in the book. Find-a-grave was an asset to me as I searched. Some graves we were never able to locate due to no stone or plaque on the site. We simply had to accept that the records were correct; that a family member was interred there.

  30. Such a beautiful story. So happy you were able to get the headstone. Thank you for sharing.

  31. I recently published an article about individuals who died while traveling west and were buried on the Oregon/California/Mormon trails between 1840 and 1869. There are, however, cenotaphs for them in eastern cemeteries with no indication that their remains are still buried far to the west. You might consider discussing the problem of identifying such stones in cemeteries east of the Missouri River.

  32. Thank you to everyone for your interest in and help on making FindAGrave a place of sharing genealogical information. I enjoy adding information and pictures of headstones I find during my infrequent genealogy travels. Not everyone was able to travel – pre-COVID, so sharing information on non-family members is a great way to help other researchers. Take care,

  33. There must be something about Michigan! My great-grandmother, Rosetta Banker, died of consumption in 1881, in Pt. Huron. She was only 27 years old and left a 3 1/2 year old daughter (my grandmother). Rosetta was buried in Lakeside Cemetery. One hundred years later, my husband and I tried to find her stone. It was not there. Also, it was November and the ground was frozen. Two years later my cousin and husband visited the cemetery in the summertime. And, you guessed it. A very nice custodian dug around the area and found the stone, in pieces, but still readable. We purchased a new stone, had it installed, and the piece with her name on it was shipped to me, in California. It still sits in my garden, degenerating, but still readable.
    Thanks for the great story on hidden stones.

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