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Dates ‘set in stone’ aren’t always correct

It’s etched in stone.

That’s a phrase used universally to indicate that a decision has been made and can’t be changed. But in the genealogical world, being etched in stone doesn’t mean we should take it as the final word on a date or other bit of information.

Let’s say you’ve worked backward in your genealogy quests and are setting off to investigate your great-great-grandma Sara Emeline. Her family was prominent in the community, so it was easy to find her tombstone at the little church her papa helped build after he donated the land in 1866.

Sure enough, there it is etched in stone (literally) that she was born Aug. 6, 1847, and that she died Feb. 25, 1944. OK, that’s two blocks you can check off your search list for her.

Or is it? One of the tenets of solid genealogical research is that we must conduct a reasonably exhaustive search for all information pertinent to an event or situation in question.

No matter how hard we work to find a cemetery, discovering a date on a tombstone does not constitute an exhaustive search. So, where else can we go to confirm or refute the data on the tombstone? Family Bibles, newspaper obituaries, funeral memorials, death certificates, and Social Security records (depending on when the person lived and died) are the logical places to look.

Of course, we also should seek out sources unique to the individuals and when they lived and died.

In this case, no family Bible has been found, there were no funeral memorials for that time period, and Sara Emeline never got into the Social Security system. There was an obituary in the local weekly newspaper. It placed her as dying at 4 a.m. “Friday morning.” By searching online for a 1944 calendar, we can find that the “Friday morning” prior to the date of the obituary also places the death on Feb. 25.

But another basic tenet of genealogical research is that we seek primary information — in other words, details from someone with firsthand knowledge of the fact.

It is equally important to understand that firsthand knowledge doesn’t mean it is true or accurate. If someone were present at a birth, they would have firsthand information of it; but suppose that death was 65 years ago, and our informant’s 85-year-old mind isn’t so alert any more? How much can we trust that person’s memory? We have to analyze each case on its own merits. If this person kept a journal or had old letters that were written at the time of the event, that primary information takes on more credibility.

What if someone were present at a death BUT was so full of grief, it caused confusion for a while — even when it came to telling the stonemason the date?

For that reason, the highest proof we would seek to verify the date of death for Sara Emeline is a death certificate. Although mistakes can be made on any document, records made by an uninvolved person in an official capacity are the most likely to be accurate.

Sara Emeline’s death certificate says she died on 24 February 1944 and the attending physician signed it on that same date. Certainly the date etched in her tombstone is only one day off from the day she really died. Should we be concerned about a one-day error?

It really doesn’t change anything about how she lived and died. But it does say something about our genealogical work. Finding an error such as this shows we are thorough researchers. Exercises such as this get us into the habit of routinely questioning every piece of evidence we discover.

Another important factor here is that when we write Sara Emeline’s history, we should tell our readers that the source of our date of death for her is not her tombstone, but her death certificate.

Since we now know the date of death on the tombstone is incorrect, should we believe the date of birth etched there? The same date does appear on her death certificate, and her daughter provided that information. We have no way of knowing where the daughter got this date, or how much her grief could have allowed for error. We’ve been put on notice that something allowed for a mistake in the date of death so, yes, we must question this date of birth too. So off we go — still searching for family Bibles and hoping to find baptism records and other papers that will prove or disprove another date that is etched in stone.

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