A sexton is the office of the person or persons who are in charge of a cemetery. They are often referred to as the caretaker of a cemetery. Churches also have a sexton for the maintenance of the church building and/or the surrounding graveyard. In larger buildings, such as cathedrals, a team of sextons may be employed. Also in some cities where there are multiple cemeteries, there may be a city-appointed department to fulfill the many responsibilities required to maintain the local cemeteries.
The word "Sexton" is said to be derived from the Anglo-Norman word "segerstein", which originated from the Latin word "sacristanus", which basically refers to "someone who looks after the sacred objects".
What are the responsibilities of a Sexton?
Amongst the traditional duties of the sexton in small parishes was the digging of graves - the gravedigger in Hamlet refers to himself as sexton, for example. In modern times, grave digging is usually done by an outside contractor. The general duties of a modern sexton may include (but are not limited to):
- Keeping diligent records of those buried in the cemeteries and those moved to other cemeteries, as well as details of the number of lots and plots, who is owner of each, and details about the interred person
- Keeping and updating detailed maps of the cemeteries, including the layout of the lots and individual plots
- Opening and closing the cemetery gates on schedule
- Mowing and weeding of the lawn
- Trimming trees and shrubbery
- Maintaining roadways in all weather
- Emergency response during bad weather, etc.
- Providing security and protection of the property
- They are responsible for opening and closing all graves. (This ensures that graves are the proper size, vaults are properly installed, and equipment that lowers vaults and coffins into graves is set up and operates properly and safely.)
- Retaining copies of keys to every above-ground mausoleum and crypt
What are Sexton Records?
Sexton Records are the records kept by the sexton for most cemeteries. Family cemeteries may be an exception, but government, corporate and church cemeteries usually have a set of sexton's records. These are always worth checking, but become even more important in cases where the gravestones have been lost, vandalized, or otherwise damaged.
These records are usually in paper or card form, sometimes in file folders by name. They may be cross-referenced to lot records or cemetery deed records. Some cemeteries have put many of these records into a searchable database, but almost always there is a copy of the paper records somewhere. The indexed database records help cemetery administrators quickly locate the name of anyone interred in the cemetery as well as the owner of any lot or plot.
Most often, the records will give the name of the individual buried, their plot, the date of the burial, and the name of the owner of the plot - another important clue to establishing family relationships. In some cases, you might find extra details such as the cost of the plot or the cause of death. You may even learn of connections to other plots (and other possible family relationships), as when disinterment and reburials take place.
What kind of detail can I find in Sexton Records?
Almost always include:
- Name of deceased
- Date of burial
May also include:
- Date of death
- Cause of death
- Age at death
- Full birth and/or death dates
- Full name, including maiden name for women
- Relationship clues (shows who else is buried in the plot and if they are related, possibly showing how they are related)
- Owner of the plot
- Cost of the plot and/or burial
- Burial permit
- Transit permit (if applicable)
- A copy of the obituary
- A copy of the death certificate
- Names of others involved (funeral home, officiating clergyman, memorial company, etc.)
- Information linking the plot owner to other plots (e.g. disinterment, reburial, etc.)
- Former home address of deceased
- Where deceased died, if other than where he/she lived
- Name of doctor and/or hospital
- Name of officiating minister or clergyman
- Military affiliation
- If the deceased was moved to or from that cemetery
An example of a sexton's record book
How this information can be used?
- To find dates of life events to further your research
- To find names of family members, neighbors, and others who are buried in the same plot and are therefore likely connected to your ancestor in some way
- To find a woman’s maiden name
- To find cause of death
- To get a sense of the economic standing of the family
- Clues to other avenues of research (church they associated with, clergyman’s name, funeral home, memorial company, etc.)
Finding Sexton Records
The best place to find these records, not surprisingly, is at the sexton's office in the cemetery, but some older records and records from cemeteries that are no longer "active" (a cemetery where burials are no longer taking place) may have been handed over to local genealogical or historical societies. If you're quite sure you have the correct cemetery, but there are no records available there, check at the local city hall as they sometimes hold the sexton records there. If they do not have the records on location, they will know who the local sexton or record keepers are, and how to get a hold of them.
Keep in mind that the Sexton, or the person in charge of these important records, is not required to give anyone access to them, even after proving relation, especially full access to the wealth of information they often hold.
Reference United States Cemeteries or look in the state you are researching in for tips on how to locate a cemetery where you can find these records about your family.