Searching for Willard: ‘Houston, We Have a Problem’

April 14, 2015  - by 

In researching for Willard O. Hyatt I quickly found the entry below for his tombstone. Great – that is my target, Willard O. Hyatt. He was born in Burlington, Calhoun County, Michigan, and I knew that he died there. I could see by his tombstone that he died in 1934. Armed with this initial information it was time to dig deeper.

By pulling his entries in the census, his death certificate and other records, we can begin to piece together the facts of his life.

I next found his death certificate shown below.

Willard Hyatt 2









Hmm…“Houston, we have a problem.”

His date of death in the death certificate is not agreeing with the date carved on his tombstone.

Willard Hyatt 3
I looked in the old newspapers in to see if I could find out more about this discrepancy – and uncovered an unusual story.

This article in the Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper gives us the rest of his story, telling us why he decided to commission his own gravestone so many years before his death – and why it has the wrong date.

Willard calculated that since both of his parents – Thomas Hyatt (1806-1887) and Mary Ann (Odell) Hyatt (1811-1891) – died at age 80, he too would die at 80 years of age.

So in 1906 – 18 years before his projected date of death – he bought a tombstone and had the carver entered his life dates as he expected them to be: 1854-1934, when he would be 80 years old.

But as things turned out, it was another 10 years before Willard passed away – on the 28th of October 1944.

Genealogy Tip: Dig deep and find every supporting document. Go beyond census and vital records. Be sure to search the old newspapers – that’s where the stories of our ancestors are.





Thomas Jay Kemp is the Director of Genealogy Products at GenealogyBank. Tom is an internationally known librarian and archivist. He is the author of over 35 genealogy books and hundreds of articles about genealogy and family history. An active genealogist, he has been working on his own family history for over 50 years.

Tom previously served as the Chair of the National Council of Library & Information Associations (Washington, D.C.) and as Library Director of both the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.


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