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FINDING YOUR ROOTS:
Visiting Britain's Churchyards and Garden Cemeteries

by Lise Hull

One of the best ways to get in touch with your heritage and to explore some of Britain's most scenic countryside is to seek out the cemetery or churchyard where an ancestor is buried. Exploring the aging stones and also the hallowed passageways of the adjoining place of worship can be a spiritually uplifting experience, especially if you discover the spot where an ancestor is buried. Headstones and effigies also record the social and religious mores of the times, and, with their fine carvings and sculpture, graveyards are often more like outdoor museums than simple burial grounds. Indeed, they offer you the closest tangible contact with your biological past.

Churchyard

In England, visitors generally have access to two types of graveyard. "Churchyards" are graveyards filled with parishioners and other members of the congregation (or people who died in the area) which are consecrated and situated immediately alongside the church. They usually take up no more than an acre and often date back several centuries. "Cemeteries," on the other hand, can cover ten or more acres of land and are located on the outskirts or outside a town. Commonly dating to no earlier than between 1820 and 1850, cemeteries are owned by a local authority, such as the district, town or parish council, or one of London's boroughs. Sometimes known as "garden cemeteries," they are the by-product of an era when town populations were burgeoning and community churchyards had begun to fill to capacity. Whereas the majority of cemeteries are still in use, churchyards may or may not accept new burials.

Preparing for your visit

Begin your research with what you know about your ancestors, such as the last place they lived, where they died, or their religious affiliation. Then,

  • Refer to the relevant Ordnance Survey map to chart out the cemeteries and churchyards in the village or locality with which your ancestors were associated.

  • Check the Internet for churchyard and cemetery indexes. Increasingly, communities are placing this information online. The East Ayrshire Council website is just one example: http://www.east-ayrshire.gov.uk/comser/outdoorservices/cems_home.asp.

  • Contact the library or county records office for local history books and archival information that locate cemeteries or indicate where individuals are buried. Some libraries and archives offer Internet research services.

  • Contact the local genealogy or historical society, many of which have websites. Members often know the whereabouts of cemeteries and the identities of people buried there. They may also have copies of cemetery records.

  • Seek out the appropriate parish records, which may record the burial location or the place where an ancestor died (not necessarily the gravesite itself, but at least the place of death, such as a hospital, which can key you to the relevant cemetery). You may want to contact the sexton or vicar responsible for the graveyard prior to your visit in order to determine for certain if your ancestors are actually buried there.

  • Consider visiting an area's churchyards and cemeteries as destinations in and of themselves to enjoy their serenity and historic and aesthetic natures regardless of whether or not an ancestor is buried there.

At the Graveyard

Chest TombNever assume you will easily find a gravesite, even if you have a copy of the cemetery records or a local history that claims to pinpoint its location. Not only can the documents be incorrect, but some cemeteries have long since been converted into playgrounds or parks. Graves may be obscured by vegetation or the stones so degraded that inscriptions are impossible to read. And, even though the graves themselves may actually survive underneath the earth, the headstones may have broken or been moved. You may find them propped up along an enclosing wall.

When you come across an ancestor's gravesite, record its specific location within the cemetery or churchyard and also relative to other graves, particularly graves of family members. Take photos of the site and make drawings as well. Carefully look at other headstones. They may adorn the graves of previously unknown relatives, including stillborn or other children. Remember to document everything on the headstone exactly as you see it. Even if the words are in Latin, Welsh or Gaelic, record what you see just as it appears, as mistakes are easy to make. Photograph every side of the stone from a variety of angles. Copy any other carvings in case the photos do not do them justice.

Churchyards also contain chest tombs, many of which were once elaborately decorated with carvings. If a chest tomb is located close to ancestral graves, record it as well, in case you determine from cemetery records that it belongs to your family. Sadly, these tombs tend to have been ravaged by the effects of weather and lack of upkeep. They often survive only in pieces, their empty interiors exposed to the elements. Remember, however, the grave itself may remain intact beneath the earth.

If you are exploring a churchyard, be sure to visit the church, chapel or associated place of worship as well. Not only do these buildings feature pleasing architecture, fine windows and relics of the past, such as baptismal fonts or rood screens, but they also house chest tombs, wall plaques and memorials. The tombs are often quite elaborately adorned with gilt work or painted effigies reputedly resembling the dead in prayer. Many churches also have crypts or burials underneath the main altar or floor of the nave and aisles.

crypt

In the end, you may have to give up searching for a particular grave. In fact, many graves were never given headstones. But, even so, the experience of wandering aging graveyards and exploring the effigies and tombs inside a neighboring church can be a rewarding, educational, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The sacred grounds have an allure that encourages us to contemplate our relationship to the dead, regardless of their biological relationship to us. They also point to little-known but often historic sites that in and of themselves can reveal the story of our past.

Interpreting What You See

Devon TombstoneBesides documenting birthplaces, causes of death, family names, and occupations, gravestones often provide clues to your ancestors' lifestyles and the prevailing attitudes that would have impacted them -- and may have been transferred to you over the course of time. The specific location of a grave or tomb, especially its proximity to the church or placement in certain areas inside the church, reflects social status. For example, burials placed closest to the main altar or isolated in private chapels within the church and those most extravagantly decorated or occupying specially built crypts are associated with wealthy individuals having social or political significance within the community.

Parishioners who could not afford church interment were forced to bury their dead outside. Higher classes sought graves on the eastern side of the churchyard, which was considered critical on Judgment Day, whereas lesser status individuals were placed in graves on the southern side. And, if the dead had the misfortune to be unbaptized (such as stillborn infants), a suicide, an outsider, or someone who had been excommunicated, they would be buried in the northern corner of the churchyard -- which traditionally belonged to Satan.

More Information

Churchyard Chest Tombs, by Jonathan Taylor
http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/chesttombs/chesttombs.htm

Cemetery Research Group
http://www.york.ac.uk/inst/chp/crg/index.htm

History.UK.com, Churches
http://www.history.uk.com/churches/index.php

The Church Monuments Society
http://freespace.virgin.net/john.bromilow/CMS

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Lise Hull is a recognized authority on British castles and heritage, with a Master of Arts degree in Heritage Studies from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, as well as a Master of Public Affairs degree, specializing in Historic Preservation, from Indiana University. She is the author of several of books on Britain, including Britain's Medieval Castles (Praeger: 2005), Great Castles of Britain and Ireland (New Holland: 2005) and Castles and Bishops' Palaces of Pembrokeshire (Logaston Press, 2005). Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Military History Quarterly, Military History, Renaissance Magazine, Family Tree Magazine and Everton's Family History and Genealogical Helper magazines; she is also a regular contributor to Faerie Magazine. Visit her websites at http://www.lisehull.com and http://www.castles-of-britain.com.

Article and photos © 2006 Lise Hull
Devon tombstone photo © Moira Allen

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