FAMILY HISTORY FOR BEGINNERS
It is rare to find a memorial to a deceased person dated much before 1600. Those which survive will usually relate to more wealthy people and will most often be found inside a church rather than in a churchyard (where the ravages of time are likely in any event have obliterated such early inscriptions). This is not to say that the graves of the poor were not marked. Many, after the burial, would have been marked with a carved or painted wooden board but this would have perished within a relatively short time leaving the grave unmarked. The establishment of permanent memorials increased steadily until by the Victorian period, even many of the poorer members of society were memorialised in some form. This trend increased into the 20th century but with the increasing popularity of cremation, there has been something of a reduction in the use of permanent memorials.
Burial and Cremation
Until the end of the 18th century, the vast majority of people would have been buried in a churchyard. Each parish church, and most of their chapelries, would have had its own burial ground. There would also have been many nonconformist burial grounds. A small number of private burial grounds had also been established such as Bunhill Fields in London and an increasing number of these began to appear in the early years of the 19th century (Rosary Road, Norwich, 1819; Rusholme Road, Manchester, 1820; Liverpool Necropolis, 1825). The urbanisation of the population during this period placed demands upon parish burial grounds in cities which they were unable to accommodate and many became squalid and unsanitary. Legislation in 1851 banned burials in London city churchyards (and interments in church vaults) and made provision for local authorities to establish out-of-town municipal burial grounds. The act was extended to the rest of the country in 1853. It is from this period that many of the municipal cemeteries date. Graves are generally "permanent" that is to say that once buried, remains are not subsequently removed to charnel houses (as is the practice in some continental countries) though they may be removed and re-buried elsewhere to permit works such as road widening. There is no requirement to establish a memorial and the decision depends on the wishes and financial means of the family. In private cemeteries, it is probable that the majority of graves had a memorial. In municipal cemeteries it is less certain.
The first "official" cremation was carried out at Woking in 1885 but cremation achieved only a limited following until World War 2 after which it rapidly gained popularity until it overtook burial in 1968. Many cremated remains were walled-up in niches (or sometimes buried) at the crematorium and a memorial placed on the plaque closing the niche (or on a conventional "headstone"). More recently it has become the practice to commemorate the deceased by planting a rose bush with a small (and one suspects transient) marker. Even where a niche is used, it is now the practice to lease the niche for 10 or 20 years rather than sell it for permanent occupation. Many people choose to scatter the ashes at some favourite place of the deceased and to leave no memorial permanent or otherwise.
Finding the Body - and the Records
The greatest problem with memorials is locating the place of disposal (the term burial will be used hereafter though the notes apply equally to cremation). There is no publicly available official record of where people were buried. Although they issue a death certificate, this does not record the burial place. Registrars do keep receipts from undertakers recording details of disposal of the body but these are not retained indefinitely and are not open to the public. You therefore need to use other sources such as:
Our first assumption is often that the body would be buried close to the place where the person died and this will often be the case. It was not uncommon, however, for the body to be taken for burial at some place with family connections - possibly where the person was born or from which the family originally came. It is possible also that the family owned the rights to burial in a grave in a private cemetery and chose to bury the person there rather than close to where they lived, even if this meant a lengthy journey. One must also not overlook fashion. Some cemeteries held an appeal which drew business from many miles away. Brooklands (municipal) Cemetery in Sale (Cheshire) contains memorials to large numbers of people who lived in suburbs of Manchester (Lancashire) and whose bodies would have been taken past the gates of at least one other municipal cemetery on their final journey.
If you cannot identify the burial place with certainty, you will have to check each of the possible burial places. In cities from the early 1800s, it is increasingly likely that the burial will be in a private cemetery rather than a churchyard and from about 1850 in a municipal cemetery. For churchyard burials, the burial registers will usually be found either at the church or more likely in a local record office. For municipal cemeteries and crematoria, most of the registers will be held by the municipal authority who will search for a specific entry. There may be a charge for this service and usually you will be expected to know the date of death. The registers may not be at the cemetery to which they relate. You may have to telephone around to find the ones you want. Some, for closed cemeteries, may be deposited in record offices. The records of private cemeteries, many of which are now closed, may be found in local record offices. Records of private crematoria which are still in operation will be held by the appropriate company. The Brooklands Cemetery example above points to the need to avoid treating administrative boundaries (such as counties) as brick walls.
There are two types of written record which you may encounter. Firstly, there is the burial register. This will generally record burials in the order in which they take place. In church registers, registers seldom identify the location of the grave. In municipal registers the register will contain a record of the grave number which will allow the grave to be located (though you may require assistance in interpreting the numbering system used in a large municipal cemetery). There may also be a "grave book" (or "sexton's book"). This is normal practice for municipal cemeteries but if one ever existed for a churchyard it has often failed to survive. The grave book records the names (and possibly addresses) of those buried in the grave and the date of burial. If the plot was purchased, it will usually record the owner's name. The depth will also be recorded to assist the sexton when future burials are proposed. The grave book is valuable since it may contain names of people not recorded on the memorial.
Monuments and Inscriptions
The existence of a burial does not, of course, mean the existence of a memorial but if one survives it can provide invaluable genealogical information. Some of the possibilities include:
The inscription may also have some eulogistic words about the deceased ("...who bore his illness with fortitude and faith in God"). While these may be accurate, one seldom sees an inscription reading "..who complained incessantly about the slightest inconvenience" and so should be treated with scepticism unless supported by other sources.
The difficulty of locating a memorial can be eased to a great extent by the use of indexes and transcriptions of monumental inscriptions. There is often difficulty, however, in determining whether the memorials of any particular burial ground have been recorded. Library catalogues may assist and local family history societies will usually have a good idea of what is available. The Society has recently published "A Guide to Manchester Burial Grounds" which provides comprehensive details of all the city's old burial grounds and the location of their records. For Lancashire, the Lancashire Family History & Heraldry Society's publication "Lancashire Graveyards & Burial Grounds" lists the location of many indexes and transcripts. A similar publication for Yorkshire is "Recorded Monumental Inscriptions" from the North east Group of Family History Societies.
As with all transcripts, the possibility of error exists and if possible you should view the original to confirm the accuracy of what has been recorded. You should also note that any index/transcript is only complete up to the date of its compilation. Later memorials will not be included unless as a later supplement. It should also be noted that there is considerable value in older transcripts (such as those in the 19th century Owen Manuscripts in Manchester Archives) since the effects of weathering and vandalism may have subsequently obliterated inscriptions which were legible 50 years or more ago.
For the location of burials, there is currently no comprehensive index. Many church burial registers have been transcribed individually and this may reduce the work involved somewhat. It is difficult, however, if the person was buried many miles from where they lived or were last known to have lived. This is being addressed by the compilation of a National Burial Index under a project run by the Federation of Family History Societies. The third volume of this index was published on DVD in 2010. Coverage is, however very variable across the country depending on the level of volunteer effort available to the individual societies involved. There is considerable information for Yorkshire but nothing for Leicestershire or Cornwall.
Recording Monumental Inscriptions
You will at some stage wish to record a family memorial. The following notes may assist:
Rayment's Notes on Recording Monumental Inscriptions, FFHS, 1992
The Victorian Celebration of Death, James Stephens Curl, Sutton, 2000
English Churchyard Memorials, Hilary Lees, Tempus, 2000
A Guide to Manchester's Burial Grounds, MLFHS, 2005php
Lancashire Graveyards and Burial Grounds, LFHHS.php
Amended 3 January 2011 - John Marsden