Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy

20/12/2003

Using Gravestones for Genealogy

Imagine it is a summer day and the Sun is shining bright and you are exploring a local Churchyard and looking at the Tombs and Tombstones trying to find your ancestors. In most cases unless you know exactly where the interment is the chances are you won’t find them and the reason for this is quite simple.

In the first place Churchyards usually cover quite a large area; also Churchyards normally have three sorts of interment. In the first case you have the large ornamental Tomb which in some cases can be very large indeed they tended to be erected by the very wealthy and in a lot of cases were an expression of the persons position in society. In the next case is what you would call the normal Tombstone and they of course are the most numerous. The third form found are the unmarked interment the grave without a headstone and these are by and large the most common form of interment. For example at South Leith Parish Church in Leith Edinburgh there are over three hundred monumental stones and over eleven thousand unmarked graves and at Grayfriars in Edinburgh there are over two hundred and fifty thousand unmarked graves. The reason for this was due to the level of poverty in Scotland over long periods of time and people simply could not afford headstones. This is no reflection on the family and is merely a part of the Social History of Scotland.

So before visiting the Churchyard that you interested in can I suggest that you do the following in order that you dont waste your time;

a) Pay a visit to the Council Office in the area that you are interested in and have a word with the department that deals with Crematoriums and Cemeteries. They will hold the Burial Records for all the Council run Crematoriums and Cemeteries. From these Records it is possible to find the position of the interment. However you will need to know at least the year of the death (from a death certificate) or failing this at least to know a date within two-three years on either side of the death. The record once found will show the name of the person of course, the date of death of the person and the date of burial, sometimes the cause of death, where the person lived, also some information on the family itself. It will also give the position of the grave
given usually as so many feet North, South, East or West of a particular headstone. This headstone is normally easy to find (not always!) and then it is a case of pacing of the relevant distance from the Tombstone when you come to visit the Churchyard. In some Churchyards especially in more modern ones (i.e. churchyards within the past one hundred and sixty years old) the Churchyard is divided into sections and each section is indicated by a letter or letters of the alphabet. This system is used for both marked and unmarked graves. While you are there it is always useful to ask if a plan of the Churchyard is available sometimes they are. Unfortunately this system fails sometimes as the headstone from which you measure has been removed in the past and sometimes unfortunately this has been caused in the main by vandalism, erosion of the stone, straightforward removal to a different part of the Churchyard from which it was originally erected or removed completely at sometime in the past due to the condition of the ground or improvements in the Churchyard.

b) Some Churchyards are run by Private Companies in which case the Burial Records for these Churchyards are held by the Companies themselves and so it is advisable to contact them first. The local Council will hold a list of Private Churchyards and should be able to give a contact telephone number.

c) For military Graves contact should be made to the Commonwealth Graves Commission in London.

It should be understood that sometimes a headstone may of course be erected to an individual. However this isnt always the case as Tombstones can be erected to mark a family plot in order that more then one generation are buried in the same grave. Therefore it follows that a substantial amount of information on a family can be gleaned in some cases from the family Tombstone. Not only this but sometimes emblems of the family trade can be seen and on military Graves the badges of the Regiment that they were connected to and served in will be found.

Even information gleaned from the Burial Records for unmarked graves can throw up unexpected family connections because families buried in unmarked graves if found close to each other are normally related. This is important if you come across a number of names with the same surname and you are wondering if they are connected. What you do is to check the burial record and if it found that some have been buried in the same area you can safely assume it is the same family on the other hand if you find that they are widely spread out then you can assume there is probably no connection at all.

Another thing to bear in mind is that Churchyards especially ancient Churchyards can change and evolve through time and so many features of the Churchyard can change So please dont think that what you see today is necessarily what people saw a hundred or two hundred years ago. Of course some ancient Churchyards look frozen in time and contain many ancient burials going back hundreds of years but what you find that in many cases these are what you call Closed Churchyards in which case burials are not carried out today and distinct from this are Open Churchyards in which burials are still carried out.

One last thought people werent always buried in the Churchyard because up to the 18th century despite injunctions from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland people were buried inside the Church because this was considered the only decent place for a Christian person to be buried. So your search may in fact end up inside the Church and not in the Churchyard at all.

The study of Churchyards is important to the Genealogist and local Historian because they open a window to our past and our heritage and is a subject that I will be returning to again in the future.

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