Monday, 3 May 2021

Free Family History Mini-Class 2021 : Lesson 5


In this week’s mini-class, I'm looking at graveyard research, and how to get the most out of visiting your ancestors' final resting place.  But it's not just a matter of grabbing a pen and paper and heading off to the cemetery...  

Before you go...

  Speak to relatives who may know the whereabouts of family graves, or have paperwork relating to burials. 

  Contact cemetery or local authorities to find out about a graveyard’s opening hours.  Some offer look-up or research services - sometimes for a fee - which might make your search easier. 

  Check for the existence of layout plans or maps for large cemeteries. Public libraries (and their websites) or council offices sometimes hold copies of these.  GENUKI is a useful source of information about burial grounds - as are the groundskeeping staff in the cemetery.  If you can't find a plot, ask them. 

  Use online sources to identify ancestral grave sites and memorial inscriptions - try FindAGraveBillionGraves (and their free mobile apps), and for those who died in wartime, Commonwealth War Graves. Smaller churchyards and other burial grounds may also have been surveyed and the inscriptions made available on the Internet, and a good online search should track them down.    

  Family history societies produce indexed cemetery publications which you can buy directly from them, or from organisations like the Scottish Genealogy Society.  Public libraries often hold copies of these monumental inscription books for local parishes.  Search their online catalogues to find out what they have on their shelves.

During your visit... 

  Don’t try and scrape lichen or moss off gravestones as this can do more harm than good. A safer way to clean a memorial is to wash it carefully with water, using a damp cloth, and perhaps a very soft brush afterwards to remove dirt residues. However, it's important to get permission from the cemetery or headstone owners if you feel the need to clean headstones, no matter how good your intentions are.  Resist the temptation to use abrasive cleaning materials which can cause irreparable damage to masonry; here’s a recent case of what happened when some well-meaning folk did some DIY and now it needs an SOS: When Helping Is Harmful 

  Damage to memorials can also be inflicted by rubbing with chalk, crayon, or any other materials to try and read or record the engraving on a stone.  Record the inscription with a photograph instead.  This will allow you to take a note of the plot's location as well as the information on the headstone. 

  Use non-invasive methods like foil reflectors, artificial or natural light and shade to highlight worn and hard-to-read inscriptions.  Or do what my friend Anne did and wait for the sun to providentially break through the clouds!  You can learn more about looking after gravestones from Historic Environment Scotland 

  Be careful of unstable stones and soft ground.  Follow cemetery authorities’ advice regarding visits, health and safety, and care of graves.  Take heed of signage on site which may alert you to hazardous areas of the cemetery. 

  Look on the back of ancestral headstones for more names - sometimes there wasn't enough room on the front! 


After you return home... 

  Check dates and names from headstones with certificates and other sources. Beware of gravestone "typos" – if a name was added well after the event, or if the deceased’s age was uncertain, the inscription may contain inaccuracies.  

  If you’ve photographed headstones, you may decide to upload them to FindAGrave or BillionGraves, along with a transcription of the wording on them. Sharing what you’ve found can connect you with others researching the same families. 

  Add what you’ve learned to your records, remembering to use pencil if you haven’t double-checked the information yet. 

  Share your findings with your family, especially those relatives you asked for help beforehand. 



    Thank you, Chris

  2. Having spent hours in cemeteries in the early days of my research journey. I found the stones full of helpful information, as these were the stones of my husbands 5th generational ancestors. With the information on the stones, I was able to track his ancestors back to specific areas in England.