The Burial Plot Thickens: A Find a Grave Mystery

P. Domenici, 1932-2017, San Ignacio section, Row 9, Space 1 (Image added to Find a Grave by Hazel Thornton on 29 Oct 2018.) CLICK TO ENLARGE

From time to time I accept requests through Find a Grave from people who do not live locally and who would like a volunteer to go take a photo of their relative‘s resting place for them.

A few years ago I got a request for Pietro Domenici at Mount Calvary Cemetery here in Albuquerque. I found the marker, which you can see in the featured image. There’s nothing in the photo for scale except grass, but it’s the size of a common brick…that’s because it IS a common brick, with an engraved metal plate attached to it. The plate is maybe 2X4 inches.

Lessons learned while solving a Find a Grave mystery. Don’t take everything you see there at face value! Click To Tweet

I didn’t think much of it because I’ve seen these bricks before, mostly in very old, very poor cemeteries. It did seem a little unusual in this nice, manicured cemetery, though, and for such a recent burial.

I got home to upload the photo to the Find a Grave site, where I saw a photo of 6-term Republican New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici. I thought, “What’s this doing here? Did I get the wrong page? Wait…OMG…is my Pietro really Pete Domenici?!” I found his Wikipedia page and the dates matched.

I asked my Facebook community about it, because many of them are long-time New Mexicans who know more about local politics than I do:

What do you think it means? Was he and/or his family just very frugal? Did something bad happen to his estate? The only clue to his financial status is the internet (I know) which states that his estimated net worth was $968,009 in 2007. Perhaps he was persona non grata after the 2013 scandal? Still, kinda sad that he only gets a brick to commemorate his life, no?

His Celebration of Life was held at Isotopes Stadium, after all, according to his obituary.

No one knew the answer, but one theory — thanks, Miriam Ortiz y Pino — was that it was a placeholder for a fancier headstone that had not yet arrived. Although the other bricks I’d seen were decades old and not likely to ever be replaced with a fancier headstone, I followed up on that theory.

Facebook Update #1:

Spoke to a cemetery employee. The bricks are what people get who have no headstone. It is not an indication of class, as there are many reasons why people don’t have headstones. One I hadn’t thought of is that sometimes the spouse thinks it’s bad luck to have a double gravestone prior to their own death. It’s possible that a gravestone is on order, but it only takes 6-8 weeks to get one made (it’s been over a year). They are not aware of a headstone being on order, but if it were ordered elsewhere they wouldn’t know about it anyway until time to place it.

I myself once had a grave marker placed for an ancestor decades after his death, although this was at a different cemetery that did not use bricks to mark burial plots. So the delayed headstone theory seemed logical, especially for a person of prominence. Until….

The plot thickens!

When I looked him up again I found A SECOND Find a Grave listing for Pete! WHAT?

Facebook Update #2:


Facebook Update #3:

Ahh, this is how they are able to sell the crypt. No one is buried there yet. This is his wife’s Find a Grave listing. The rest of Pete’s family (parents, sisters) are buried at Mt. Calvary, but not in the same section as his brick.


I hadn’t thought about ol’ Pete for a while, until a Facebook memory popped up today, reminding me of this fun little mystery from 2018. I just checked his Find a Grave listing again, and, sure enough, ten months later a nice headstone was placed in the spot where the brick had been. Or, at least that’s when the new photo was uploaded to Find a Grave. It matches the location of the brick I saw in 2018 (my photo of which is still on the site). I know it’s the right spot because of the crucifix monument shown in the background, looking west from the headstone.

Image added to Find a Grave by TansyFields on 31 Aug 2019.

Here’s a map showing the crucifix monument (in the traffic circle) and the long, skinny San Ignacio section radiating East from there.


Grave Lessons Learned

So, what did I learn (and what knowledge was reinforced) from this experience?

  • Don’t take everything you see on Find a Grave at face value.
  • Don’t read too much into a simple (or missing) grave marker.
  • It never hurts to crowdsource a question on Facebook.
  • It’s even better to ask someone who might actually know, like a cemetery worker.
  • A gravestone might not actually be marking the actual burial place of a body.
  • Burial plots and tombs are easily sold if no one is buried there yet.
  • Graveyards are affiliated with, and often adjacent to, churches. Cemeteries aren’t.
  • Nancy is apparently not superstitious about having a headstone with her name on it.

What unusual situations have you encountered in cemeteries and graveyards?

Please share in the comments!

Copyright 2022 by Hazel Thornton, Organized for Life and Beyond
Author of What’s a Photo Without the Story? How to Create Your Family Legacy
Please contact me for reprint permission. (Direct links to this page are welcome!)

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  1. Diane N Quintana on October 31, 2022 at 12:14 pm

    This is such a fun post! I love that you were able to solve the mystery. Well done!

    • Hazel Thornton on October 31, 2022 at 7:12 pm

      Thanks, Diane, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Sheila Delson on October 31, 2022 at 12:56 pm

    This story about headstones is quite interesting to me, partly because I’ve always been fascinated with graveyards (reading headstones for historic interest), but mostly because of the recent passing of my husband, and in the designing and keeping within size restrictions, how long for it to be made, coming from where, when it will be installed, etc., so I can definitely relate. There are always so many unknowns and moving parts, and all involve the living, not the deceased. I think it’s just all sooo interesting.

    Thanks for sharing, Hazel.

    • Hazel Thornton on October 31, 2022 at 7:15 pm

      Awww, Sheila… {{hugs}} Where was he buried?

  3. Julie Bestry on October 31, 2022 at 3:25 pm

    This is a fascinating post, and not at all scary (as I was expecting for Halloween). It’s funny the notions and assumptions there are about headstones. In Judaism, we do not place a headstone until much later, traditionally 11 months after the burial to mark the end of the mourning period. At this point, there is an unveiling (of the headstone) ceremony.

    Jewish headstones are not ornate; generally, they include the person’s English and Hebrew names, dates of birth and death, and mayyyyybe relationships. But no fancy curlicues.

    My maternal grandfather died when I was still in elementary school, and it was the first time I’d ever been to a funeral, and later, the first time I’d ever seen a cemetery (up close). I noticed that instead of headstones, all of the grave markers were flat, even with the ground, and I assumed that Jewish people didn’t have headstones. It turns out it was just that, due to the weather erosion (think: hurricanes) in south Florida, flat grave markers rather than headstones were just the thing they did, nothing religious about it at all.

    Thanks for providing updates on this behind-the-scenes genealogical experience.

    • Hazel Thornton on October 31, 2022 at 7:35 pm

      Hi Julie! It’s really just a happy coincidence that it’s Halloween. I hope no one was really hoping for scary, lol! Yours was a good example of a cemetery-related assumption. The cemetery my family members are buried in also require those flat markers. In this case I think it has to do with easy mowing.

  4. Kim on October 31, 2022 at 6:49 pm

    This is so cool that you do this. Quite fascinating. What a great post for Halloween as well.

    • Hazel Thornton on November 2, 2022 at 8:54 am

      Thanks, Kim! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Also, anyone can volunteer for Find a Grave, and it’s an easy thing to do for someone who doesn’t live nearby. Well, unless you get a graveyard that’s not laid out neatly, which we do have some of here.

  5. Julie Stobbe on November 1, 2022 at 6:18 am

    I loved this post. It was very interesting. Cemeteries are very interesting places to walk around. You see how people express their love for their family. It also helps you to see how your own community developed. You see where street names, building names and park names came from. Loved the mystery you shared.

    • Hazel Thornton on November 2, 2022 at 8:56 am

      Speaking of where street names came from, have you read The Address Book, by Dierdre Mask? I chose it for my book club this year and we’re discussing it next month. I think you’d enjoy it!

  6. Andi Willis on November 1, 2022 at 3:56 pm

    Fascinating, Hazel!

    After my MIL passed away last year, we found out the birthdate she had been telling everyone for almost her entire life was wrong! It had even been carved into the headstone in 2006 when my FIL passed. When she was a mere girl of 16 and dating her future husband (whose birthday was 1/10), she thought it would be fun if their birthdays were exactly 11 months apart. So instead of telling him her birthday was 12/9, she told him 12/10. Eventuality it became accepted as fact and even made its way onto some official documentation. Needless to say it was a mess when she died and my sister in law had to execute the estate. But back to the headstone. My brother -in-law is Mormon and very concerned with recording the family history. He convinced the siblings that the gravestone needed to be fixed. And it was. The number was literally crossed out and the new date written above it, like you would edit a piece of paper. I’m so conflicted about this. You can see the revised gravestone on her Find A Grave page.

    • Hazel Thornton on November 2, 2022 at 8:46 am

      Oh, my gosh, Andi, that’s hilarious! That is, if it’s not your family. I’m sorry it’s your family! But really it’s your husband’s and just makes a good story for you, no? And yes, we’ve all (all of us genealogists) have experienced discrepancies in the information we’ve found “set in stone”. Thanks for chiming in!

  7. Jane Severance on November 2, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    Sometimes I think of Hazel as a much older and more computer savvy Nancy Drew.

    • Hazel Thornton on November 5, 2022 at 2:49 pm

      LOL — I’ll take it!

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