Although perhaps a bit depressing to discuss, the topic of burial records and gravestones are frequently very important when doing research into Jewish genealogy. Indeed, while finding gravestones of your relatives can be important for any genealogist, they are even more important for Jewish genealogists due to the information frequently present on Jewish gravestones. Jewish gravestones can sometimes provide the missing link one needs to connect different families together, in particular because the name as written in Hebrew on graves is usually written in patrilineal fashion – NAME son/daughter of FATHER's NAME. As such, finding the grave of someone you are researching can take you back one more generation. When trying to identify what happened to all the siblings of an ancestor, for example, the father's name on the grave can help you confirm whether the gravestone you found is of a sibling or just someone with the same name.
This is the second article in the JewishGen Basics series. See last month's article on the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF) here.
In some cases, the gravestone will also have information on the person's town of birth, the person's profession, and whether a man was a Cohen or Levi. Sometimes this information is not even portrayed in the text on the gravestones, but in symbolic art, such as the hands of the Cohen held as is done during the Birkat Cohanim prayer. For more information on some of the symbols used on gravestones, see my article on Jewish Gravestone Symbols.
One thing to keep in mind when looking at gravestones is to realize that not everything you find written on a gravestone is necessarily, well, written in stone. For example, my great-great-grandfather's gravestone wrote that he was from Reisha (Rzeszow) and indeed he did live there for many years, but if you took it to mean that he was born in Reisha, you'd be searching fruitlessly for a long time. In other cases the dates on a gravestone, in particular any listed birth dates, can frequently be wrong. Even the date of death can be wrong (don't forget that gravestones were generally erected a year after the death).
JewishGen hosts a very important database for those trying to find Jewish graves, called the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (or JOWBR for short). The JOWBR database contains more than 1.5 Million records of graves worldwide. You can view a list of all the cemeteries that make up the database.
The JOWBR database includes many graves that no longer exist. Many Jewish cemeteries were destroyed in Europe by the Germans (and their allies) during WWII, and ten of thousands of graves were destroyed by the Jordanians on the Mt. of Olives between 1948 and 1967, yet when records of these graves that were destroyed exist on paper somewhere, JOWBR tries to integrate these historical records as well.
For example, in the case of the Mt. of Olives, a book was published in 1913 which contained information on over 8,000 graves on the Mt. of Olives, many of which were destroyed subsequently by the Jordanians. That book was turned into a database by the Israel Genealogical Society (IGS) and those graves with names were later integrated into JOWBR as well, so even if you were not aware of the IGS database, you would still find the results in JOWBR.
One important thing to know about the JOWBR is that it does not accept individual grave submissions, but rather only accepts whole cemeteries or cemetery sections. If, for example, a local Jewish genealogical society wants to submit information on local Jewish cemeteries to the database, they need to create a list of all the graves in each cemetery they want to submit. There is no way to submit individual gravestone information. In this way, the database is very different from general gravestone database sites like FindAGrave.com (see my article on FindAGrave.com here) and BillionGraves.com which revolve around individual gravestone records. This is done to ensure the quality of submissions and ensure that no duplicate submissions are made.
So how does it work?
Start by going to the JOWBR page, which should look something like this:
|JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR)|
Searching the database will return a list of regions where results were found (similar to other JewishGen searches), with the number of results shown for each region. In the US a region would be a state, while in Europe it might just be a metro area. Each regional set of results has a button to the right that you can click on which will return the actual results with names, dates, etc. As mentioned, to see the actual results you will need to be logged into JewishGen. If you are not logged in, you will be given the opportunity to log in and then be shown the results.
What information you find depends obviously on the quality of the information submitted. In many cases the gravestones are worn, partially buried, or damaged, and cannot be fully read. You may only have a first name, or only a last name, etc.
Other Related Sites
I want to add that while 1.5 million graves is a lot, JOWBR is not the only database out there with Jewish graves. Indeed there are many other smaller efforts that exist for specific regions, or even single cemeteries.
One of the largest of these alternate sites is JewishData.com which has over 500,000 records across the United States and some other countries like Canada, Germany and Israel. Records in the US come from CA, CT, IL, NJ, NY, OR, PA, VT and WI. Although JewishData.com is a commercial site, searches are free. If you find a match, then you can buy a 3 month subscription so you can access the records, or find a library or musuem that has access to the site (such as the Center for Jewish History in NY City).
In England, the web site CemeteryScribes.com and its sister site SynagogueScribes.com have burial records which are searchable.
In Israel, the Mt. of Olives has its own project to restore the cemetery and create an online index to all the graves. On www.mountofolives.co.il there is a searchable database which is usable in English, Hebrew and Russian. Note that this database is not nearly complete yet, and it has strange technical requirements – basically Internet Explorer on Windows with other add-ons. Hopefully they will make the database more accessible in the future. Some cemeteries, or more usually the Hevre Kadisha (burial societies) that service them, offer online searchable databases of graves. One good example of this is the Chevre Kadisha for Tel Aviv which covers six cemeteries in the Tel Aviv area. The site is available in Hebrew, English, French and Russian, although if you have trouble guessing the English spelling of a name (since the names are all originally in Hebrew) you can try using Stephen Morse's English to Hebrew Transliteration tool to output the Hebrew and then copy and paste it into the Chevre Kadisha site. For more information on Israeli cemetery records, see the Israel Genealogical Society's page on Burials in the State of Israel.
Throughout the United States there are smaller databases available, and they pop up all the time so even if you've tried to search in the past, you should take a new look. One good resource for finding online cemetary databases in the US is the DeathIndexes.com web site. Using Google you can search the site (which has no built-in search) for Jewish records by searching Google for:
This will search for the word Jewish on all the pages of the site. If you're looking for a cemetery in a specific state, then add the name of the state to the search. I wrote about using this site, and a cemetery database I found on it from South Carolina in an article on my blog called People lie, and so do documents, where I use the records in the cemetery database to help confirm the correct date that someone died (since two separate obituaries listed different dates).
Just last week an article was published in the New Haven Independent newspaper on efforts to maintain Jewish cemeteries in New Haven, CT and to create a searchable database online.
Sometimes Jewish cemetery information can take less usual forms, such as the blog Lomza Virtual Jewish Cemeteries which contains photos and information from two cemeteries in Lomza, Poland. Another blog called Kevarim.com has information on the grave sites of famous rabbis. The Jewish Genealogical Society of Oregon has a PDF file of burials are available on their web site.
Last but not least, the IAJGS International Jewish Cemetery Project is a web site that collects information on every Jewish burial place worldwide (but not the actual burials). You won't find names of people buried in the locations, but if you want information on specific cemeteries, or want to find out what cemeteries exist or did exist in a particular town, this is a great web site.
Contributing to JOWBR
If you are involved in collecting information on Jewish graves, such as digitizing the burial records for a local cemetery, you should consider contributing the information to the JOWBR database to insure others searching for their family members will be able to find the information on their relatives. For information on submitting data to the JOWBR database, see their Submitting Data to JOWBR page.
If you search through the list of cemeteries and find that a local Jewish cemetery (or cemetery section) near you is not listed, consider organizing a project to photograph and create an index to all the graves and contributing them to JOWBR. I recommend doing this under the auspices of your local Jewish genealogical society.
Philip Trauring is the author of Blood and Frogs: Jewish Genealogy and More, a site where you can find out about general genealogy techniques and how to apply them to your Jewish genealogy. Philip can also be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/bloodandfrogs and on Facebook at facebook.com/jewishgenealogy.