I 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.
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
Ancestry.com: Death, Burial, Cemeteries and Obituaries
Find A Grave.com: 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)
Please get in touch if you would like help finding an ancestors’ grave either in the UK, or abroad.