Naomi Leon
Research your family history using cemetery records


Research your family history using cemetery recordsI recently spent a sunny afternoon with a local history group transcribing graves in a village churchyard. It reminded what an amazing and sometimes unexpected resource gravestones can be for tracing your family history.

Cemeteries are living lessons in history, sometimes telling us as much about the people who buried the dead as the person who died. While they can’t always be relied upon absolutely, and shouldn’t be treated as a primary source, gravestones can be an excellent source of dates, birthplaces, maiden names, spouses’ names and parents’ names. They can also provide evidence of military service, membership of a fraternal organization and religious affiliations.

Prior to the introduction of civil registration – 1837 in England and Wales – church burial records are the chief source of information about deaths in a community.

Why visit?

Even if you know a great deal about the deceased including their names, date and place of birth and death, and key relationships, a grave visit can often yield new information. Nearby gravestones may lead you to other family members, children that have died in infancy (for who no other record may exist), even living relatives who have left remembrances at the graveside.

Certain communities have particular (useful) traditions such as the Jewish custom of including the Hebrew name of the deceased’s father on the gravestone.

It can also be a potent experience to stand beside the last physical evidence of your ancestors’ lives.

How to locate a grave

A death certificate should tell you when and where the deceased was buried. If it doesn’t, ask around. Your relatives may have knowledge you don’t. Local history groups often have indexes of local interments and may be able to provide information about other family members too. Their records can sometimes be found amongst the growing burial records available online through sites like Ancestry, Find a Grave and Deceased Online (see burial resources below).

Some larger municipal cemeteries, many in the US, have their own websites on which you can search graves. It is often possible to obtain photos of a gravestone, sometimes for a small fee.

In some cases, finding a grave may depend on a process of elimination and a bit of legwork, based about what you know about the deceased’s life and death. I recently spent a couple of hours phoning round Portsmouth cemeteries to find a particular grave. You can use Google maps to search for ‘cemeteries near X’. Most cemeteries employ a caretaker or sexton who will be able to tell you whether they have the grave you are looking for, or suggest where else you might try. Caretakers can be extremely knowledgeable about local records so do explain fully the nature of your enquiry. It is usually possible to find phone numbers, and sometimes email addresses online.


It is worth doing your research in advance online, by phone and email; looking for a grave even in a small cemetery can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is helpful to know the terrain before you visit – if it being cared for/ overgrown, for example (you might need to use a map to locate an old or obscure graveyard). If there is no marker for a grave, it’s good to know this beforehand.

Check opening times and the hours of the cemetery caretaker in advance, and dress appropriately.

Take a camera and/or a large piece of paper with crayons. Sometimes material deterioration, moss and foliage can make gravestones difficult to read. A rubbing may help to decipher an epitaph and record symbols inscribed on a grave. A symbol may indicate membership of an organisation which may lead to other records about your relative. Check the backs of gravestones too. Be respectful and careful not to cause any damage by using abrasive cleaning materials.

If you are making a transcription, make sure you write down names, dates and inscriptions exactly as they appear on the stone; it will be useful to have an accurate record as you move forward (or backward) with your research. Also record the physical relationship between graves if more than one relative is buried in same plot or vicinity. You may wish to draw a simple map, if the cemetery cannot provide one. You may wish to submit the findings to an online resource like Find A Grave.

If a cemetery is in poor condition or you don’t know the location of your ancestor’s grave, try to work your way around it as carefully and logically as possible, recording the ground you have covered (for your next visit). A video may be a useful way of recording what you have done.

Make use of caretakers’ records which may include burial registers, plot maps and plot records. The caretaker may be able to give you circumstantial details such as the exact date of interment, next of kin at the time of death, as well as current contact names. They may also be able to provide details of other family members’ graves.

Useful burial resources Death, Burial, Cemeteries and Obituaries
Find A a free resource including more than 85 million burial records
Deceased Online: a new subscription-based index with a growing number of UK burial and cremation records
County and municipal records: some local councils publish burial records online
Jewish Online World Burial Registry (JOWBR)

Happy hunting!
Please get in touch if you would like help finding an ancestors’ grave either in the UK, or abroad.

Jewish genealogy specialists


Jewish genealogy specialistsSeveral years ago when I began researching my own Jewish ancestry, an elderly relative sent me a scuffed piece of paper with a list of unfamiliar names.  These, I was told, were my great-grandfather’s siblings – the Lewkowicz family – from Lodz, Poland.  Then, I knew little more than my great-grandfather’s name and that he had died aged 52 in Kensington Infirmary, of tuberculosis aggravated by his tailoring work.

Fast forward to the present day, and I not only know what became of each one of those siblings, their children, and grandchildren – but, I am in touch with more than thirty 2nd and 3rd cousins in the US.  I know exactly where my great-grandfather grew up, what his street and his synagogue looked like, the names of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents as far back as 1740, how and when he came to London, the family he left behind…

The point of this story?  With a little persistence, everything is possible.  Do not assume that your Jewish ancestry cannot be uncovered! I have since researched a number of Ashkenazi and Sephardi families, from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East and have learned a few clear lessons along the way.

Chuck out the rule book

The usual principles of genealogical research do not apply.  Clearly, you cannot rely on your Jewish ancestors staying in the same place, as most English families traditionally did, or using the same names.  Even in “the old country” our ancestors typically went by a variety of names and epithets in several languages, and spelled surnames in multiple ways.  These challenges are compounded by translation and adoption of new names in new countries.  It is wise to keep an open mind when searching records and not to discount sources too quickly if certain details appear inaccurate.

Assume nothing

It is surprising how many Jewish records survive in Eastern Europe and beyond, despite best efforts to obliterate them.  Do not assume there is no information to be had.  It may be possible to find birth, marriage and death records; books of Jewish residents; business directories; cemetery records and much more.

Ask the questions

You won’t get answers if you don’t ask the questions!  Use the internet to research which archives might be helpful to you. Write or email, explain what you want to find out, ideally in bite-size chunks, and ask what records are available.  Though archivists are employed to retrieve records, not to do the work for you, they often provide an amount of informal research.  It pays to do your homework first.  Be prepared to chase! If you do not know where your ancestors came from, use old census returns and vital records to locate them.

Muster your resources

Use every tool at your disposal – a larger toolbox is required to research a Jewish family tree, though it need not be specialist.  Start by contacting relatives and ask them what they know.  As well as genealogical resources online (many of which are free, see below), use Google translate to help communicate with overseas archives, to calculate currency conversion fees. Utilise Facebook, the Israeli telephone directory, US White Pages…

Expect nothing… and everything

Obviously there is no guarantee you will find what you are looking for.  However, the particular challenges of researching Jewish ancestry make the fruits all the sweeter.  And, often, the stories uncovered about our ancestors’ rich past are of a peculiarly fascinating scope.

Where to start?

Start with the present and work your way back logically, making notes of significant names, places and dates.  You may wish to make use of the following resources:

JewishGen – the most comprehensive repository of Jewish genealogical information.
Ancestry – register a free subscription to build a tree, and explore its vast records, including the Jewish Online World Burial Registry, Jewish family history collections, passenger and immigration records.
Yad Vashem – trace relatives in wartime Europe using the Shoah Names Database, which draws on personal testimonies and WW2-era records.
Avotaynu – investigate the extensive resources of this leading Jewish genealogical publisher, including the Consolidated Jewish Surname Index, a gateway to 700,000 Jewish surnames.

Happy hunting!

A version of this piece appears in the Rosh Hashanah 2012 issue of Amuse, the biannual magazine of Edgeware Synagogue and Sussex Jewish News
Order a UK birth certificate


Order a UK birth certificate

It sounds obvious (and it is), but as you begin to research your family tree you can save yourself a lot of time, money and effort by familiarising yourself with the sources of specific pieces of genealogical information.  This is the first in a series of posts designed to help acquaint you with the types of information you can expect from key records, and how to get hold of them.

Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in England and Wales in 1837.  Before that records were kept locally by the church, or other religious bodies.  The new system, in which events were officially recorded by local District registrars, who reported to the General Registrar Office (GRO) in London, means that today we have a central, publicly accessible index of births, marriages and deaths.  Although prior to 1875, the registration of events was not strictly enforced (and a few were never registered), this index records with a fairly high degree of accuracy the key rites of passage in our ancestors’ lives.  We are lucky that in England and Wales, unlike in many other countries, the GRO’s index can be accessed free of charge.

What will a birth certificate tell you?

A birth certificate is the foundation of any family historian’s research into an individual, primarily because it will help take you back to the next generation.  Specifically, it should tell you:

  1. When and where a birth took place (including the date of registration and the district in which the birth was registered)
  2. The full name and sex of the child
  3. The name, surname, occupation and often the address of the father (the occupation and circumstantial information may help you determine you have got the right record, especially if the name is a common one )
  4. The name and maiden name of the mother
  5. The name and address of the informant (usually the father or mother, or both).

See this useful guide to birth certificates in England and Wales provided by Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.

What information will you need to order a birth certificate?

In order to order a birth certificate for a relative, you will need a few key pieces of information:

  • the full name of the person on the certificate (as it was recorded, not what you think it might be)
  • the year and quarter in which the birth was registered (indexes are organised by quarters – Jan-Mar = Q1, Apr-Jun = Q2 and so on)
  • the registration district
  • the volume and page number of the relevant entry (more…)
East End Family History


In the opening of The Go-Between (1953), the novelist L.P. Hartley wrote famously: “The past is a foreign country…”.  The phrase has been overused to the point of proverb, but it returned to mind recently when working on the history of an East End London family in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

This family resided for more than 150 years near the Thames in Stepney, Ratcliff and Shadwell, working on the dockside as labourers and coopers and selling fruit and vegetables in the local markets.  Occasionally someone branched out into a new profession such as ‘cabinet-making’ or ventured north to the environs of Bethnal Green, but seldom for long.

Yet, despite the family’s deep roots and very evident sense of rootedness in Stepney, finding them in the records and understanding the context of their lives often proved a significant challenge.  And, it’s a challenge that is common to other parts of the capital.

Pre-war streets

One of the principal tests in researching this part of London is that today it looks nothing like it did pre-WW2.  Many of the streets in which Victorian Londoners lived and worked simply no longer exist.  Give or take the odd surviving landmark such as St. Dunstan’s Church (built in the 15th century), the 20th century decline of Thames trade, the Blitz and slum clearance initiatives of the 1960s, have cumulatively rendered Stepney and its neighbouring districts unrecognisable.  The Victorians who navigated its highways and byways, its wharves and markets in the nineteenth century occupied a terrain that is literally and figuratively “a foreign country.”

Ways of mapping

As the excellent BBC2 series The Secret History of our Streets recently highlighted, there are a few tools available to help us overcome this, to ‘map’ and understand the geographical context of London lives.  The ‘Poverty Maps‘, produced by Victorian social reformer Charles Booth between 1886 and 1903, are a fascinating and incredibly valuable source of information.  They describe the socio-economic condition of each one of London’s streets according to a detailed colour key.  By comparing present day maps to other contemporaneous maps, such as Reynold’s Map of East London (1882), we can also locate streets that have over time completely disappeared.

Understanding the terminology

The unfamiliarity of Victorian London is not helped by the fact that terms used in the records can be very confusing.  The same names may be used in different contexts to indicate a parish registration district or borough, and the boundaries of these units themselves also changed over time as London expanded.  Stepney and Bethnal Green, for example, were part of Middlesex before they were incorporated into the county of London in 1889.

Finding relatives

Of course the challenges of researching East London ancestors are not just geographical.   Some are associated with the general problems of carrying out research in a densely populated metropolis.  Simply, there are many more variables to contend with in a city than in a rural community.  The Victorian East End is especially challenging given that during the nineteenth century it contained some of the poorest and most overcrowded neighbourhoods in the capital.  Life expectancy was lower than in other parts of the city and infant mortality more common.  To boot, the population was relatively transient and the area was a traditional magnet for immigrants arriving in the capital – from Huguenots in the eighteenth century to Eastern European Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Some of the most atmospheric sources of information about Victorian East London are early photographs.  It can be useful to consult these to get a feel for the world beyond the records. The missionary John Galt took an amazing collection of photographs of Poverty in East London, some of which you can see here.  The Museum of London, the British Library and the Guidhall also have some fascinating online collections.

Here are some other useful sources of information for researching London ancestors:
Do get in touch if you would like some help researching your own London ancestors.
Research your family history


Research your family history

Interviewing your relatives is by far the most effective way of gathering knowledge quickly as you start to build your family tree.  You can often discover tons of information going back several generations with just a quick chat.  However, as with all research, there are ways and means of going about this in order to get the most out of it.

Talk to your elderly relatives

The key point here is ask sooner rather than later.  Many of us don’t ask the questions we wished we had while we had the opportunity, particularly because people often don’t get interested in their family tree until they get older.  So much information dies with each generation, make the most of the relatives you have right now!  The information they provide will likely give direction and colour to your research.  If you don’t have anyone older to ask: siblings and cousins may know some details which haven’t yet been passed on to you.

Prepare in advance

It is worth having an idea of the questions you want to ask your relatives beforehand.  You might feel a little nervous about interviewing your relatives (and they might too) so having a list of questions is a useful fallback.  But don’t stick to them like a script.  You will often get more out of the conversation if you allow it to flow naturally.  You can always ask to arrange another visit if you don’t cover all the ground you’d hoped.  It’s also a good idea to record the conversation so you are not distracted by having to note take.

Ask the right questions in the right way

Your relatives are likely to be most forthcoming if they feel relaxed, so keep things informal and jolly!  Bear in mind that they may be able to supply personal anecdotes and colour that the records will not provide so try to keep your questions as open ended as possible to avoid yes/no answers, e.g. “I’m really interested in Grandma Moe.  What do you remember about her?”   Help them contextualise memories and dates with references such as, “Was she born before the war?”  Sharing information and photos you already have often helps to grease the wheels and don’t forget to ask them about their own lives.  Everyone (secretly) likes to talk about themselves and their experiences will be fascinating for future generations.

Overcome reluctance to provide information

Some relatives will be more helpful than others and you will probably know instinctively the best places to start, but even the most habitually tight-lipped may have interesting things to tell.  Often talking about your shared family history can be a really good way of opening up and connecting with your older relatives, in particular.   Be sensitive to painful memories and reluctance to talk about slightly taboo subjects such as illegitimacy.  You may want to offer reassurance as to why you want to find out your family history and how you will handle the information provided.  Again, sharing photos and records can help move conversation along.

Root out the family records

During your chat, it might be worth trying to find out if your relative has any family records and documents they wouldn’t mind sharing with you. If they don’t have them, you might discover who has them, at least. The same is true of photographs, which may have been passed down a different family line.  You might ask to borrow photos for copying.  Make sure you ask your relatives the ‘who’, ‘where’,’what’ of each photograph and treat them with the care they deserve.

Follow up

It is good practice to write up notes immediately after every interview.  You just won’t remember all the details in a year’s time!  If you don’t feel inclined to type up the conversation verbatim, particularly if you have recorded it, write up the key points and make sure your recording is clearly labelled and stored out of harm’s way.  Unwittingly, not all the information you are given may be correct.  Family stories can get embellished, and memories fade over time, so it’s really important to check the accuracy of your information against other sources before you transpose them onto your family tree.  Nevertheless, you now no doubt have a great deal more information on which to focus your research.  It’s good to share with your relatives any new information or memorabilia you find in the course of your research – they can often elicit further reminiscences.

And make sure you say thanks (a thank you card goes a long way!), so they feel disposed to help you further!

Here’s a useful list of questions that may help you prepare: 50 Questions for Family History Interviews.

Happy hunting!

For more information or support with tracing your family tree, please drop us a line.

Research your family tree


Research your family tree
Working as a family historian and probate researcher in Sussex, I come across a lot of people who are interested in researching their family history but don’t know where to begin.  While research can sometimes be tricky, and every family is different, there are a number of free, simple steps you can take to get started.

Think about what you what to find out

This might sound screamingly obvious but in order to get some answers, you will need to spend some time thinking about the questions you have about your family.  What is it that want to find out?  This might be as general as ‘I want to know a bit more about my mother’s/ father’s family’, or as specific as ‘I would like to know what grandma’s dad did for a living’, or ‘I would like to know about Uncle Bob’s naval career.’  It’s generally helpful to have an overall sense of where you want to go, bearing in mind that questions tend to lead to other questions!

Write down what you know

Equally obvious, and again mainly for your own benefit, it is useful to set down on paper what you already know.  Start by plotting a basic family tree (see below) and then note down what you know about each of your relatives such as the dates of birth, marriage and death (BMD), occupation, interesting facts, stories, theories and puzzles.  It is often surprising how little you do know about quite close relations!  This exercise will probably raise extra questions to add to your list.  Over time, you are likely to build up quite a sheaf of notes, records and photos for each person in your tree.

Create a basic family tree

Starting with yourself and your siblings in order of birth, begin to plot your family tree including key BMD dates, where possible.  Add your parents and their siblings and your grandparents.  Chances are at this point, you may begin to struggle.  If not, you’re doing well!  If you know the names of your grandparents’ siblings, add them in too.  Ditto your great-grandparents.  If you are drawing your tree by hand (often easiest at this stage), use a big piece of paper and try to leave yourself as much room as possible for each generation.  For clarity, each generation should ideally be horizontally on the same line.  Alternatively, you can download and print a template family tree chart from one of the thousands available on the internet (see here) or start an online tree by registering a free account at a site such as Ancestry.

Interview your relatives

Chatting to your nearest and dearest is initially likely to be the most effective way of building your family tree.  The key thing is to think carefully about what you want to know and prepare a little in advance.  Click here to link to a separate blog post about interviewing your relatives.

Copy and label old photos

Hopefully contacting your relatives will lead you towards family photos and documents.  As well as really bringing your ancestors to life, photos are vital records and can provide lots of clues about your ancestors lives.  Ask your relatives’ help to identify them, including when and where they were taken.  No doubt, doing this will give rise to more stories and anecdotes for your file.  You may wish to build your own collection of family memorabilia.  Ask your relatives if you can make copies.  Sometimes a high quality photo of an original will do (so take along a camera); otherwise you might ask to borrow items in order to make high-res copies or scans. Remember you may only get the one opportunity, so copies must be as good as possible. Take special care of old photos and documents in your possession.  If possible, return borrowed items by hand rather than by post.

This should all give you a good general overview of your family history.  It may take you several weeks, months, even years to complete.  To some extent, it will probably always be a work in progress and you will revisit these tasks again and again as you research your family history. In the process, you will find out more about what your ancestors did, where they lived, what they were like and hopefully what they looked like. You will probably also have a whole lot more questions!

And, probably sooner, rather than later you will want to dig into some original records!  To get you started, here is a list of top free family history websites in the UK which allow you to search for birth, marriage, and death records and census records free of charge.  Also, check out our blog guidance about approaching the records.

Happy hunting!

Top 5 genealogy websites with free content & resources

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