Tag Archives: Cemeteries

Five Tips for a Family History Cemetery Visit

Perhaps taphophilia and family history go hand in hand? I can spend ages wandering through a cemetery marvelling at the various headstone designs and reading the inscriptions. The architecture and symbolic imagery of some headstones is simply stunning. They contain so many stories, so much history and they silently speak volumes about attitudes towards death, culture, beliefs, religion, mourning and mortality over the ages.

Lottie Oddy’s Batley Cemetery Headstone – “who met her death by the fall of the cliffs at Bridlington” – Photo by Jane Roberts

Importantly, for family historians, they can contain clues about family sizes, family relationships, occupations, interests and causes of death. For example, Lottie Oddy’s headstone (above) in Batley Cemetery, details her unusual death cause – a tale I wrote about in an earlier blog. And only the other day in Masham I discovered several occupational graves, including that of Ralph Edon (below).

Ralph Edon’s Headstone Inscription at Masham Giving Some Occupational Information (Late Surgeon, 35th Regiment) – Photo by Jane Roberts

They may record deaths of family members buried elsewhere. For example, several headstones in Batley cemetery record deaths of Great War servicemen buried overseas, or with no known grave. On a personal level for my research, a Hallas headstone at Roberttown All Saints includes the name of a child buried at Mirfield St Mary’s.

Some clues may be very subtle. One headstone in Batley cemetery recorded death dates for all family members bar one. Further investigation revealed his body had been dumped on a doorstep, and the exact date of death was unknown.

And don’t forget to note wider details. The headstone, or burial location within the cemetery, could be an indication of the family’s wealth or standing in the community.

I’ve visited so many cemeteries over the years, hunting down the headstones of ancestors and those I’m researching. Here are five tips to get the most out of family history tombstone tourism. 

Plan your visit. Make a note of names, dates and plot numbers. Check cemetery opening times – not all are open 24/7. There may be a useful cemetery website, a church or local authority contact point. 

See if there’s a map of the cemetery showing plot sections and plot numbers. Are there separate sections for different religious denominations e.g. a consecrated section for Church of England burials, and an unconsecrated area for other denominations? Even within the unconsecrated sections, there may be a clear division between Catholic and nonconformist areas. 

Some local authorities may, for a fee, be able to say who is buried in a particular plot and if there is a headstone. Many cemeteries have ‘Friends Of’ groups, or there may be a family history society who has made a note of Memorial Inscriptions. They too may have information databases.

Cemetery registers may be available. If possible, try to note details of other plots in the particular section you are seeking. Your plot of interest may not have a headstone, and grave markers can be obscured. But you may be able to pinpoint your ancestor’s unmarked burial place from the neighbouring headstones. 

Another tip is to check sites such as Find A Grave or BillionGraves and download the Apps. Their images and GPS may help in pinpointing a specific grave.

When you get to the cemetery don’t rush in. Take a general look to get an overview, establish bearings and see if the cemetery has identifiable sections depending on burial time period. 

Dress sensibly and come prepared. Cemeteries can be vast, and a visit can involve lots of walking. The ground is often uneven, and not all burial grounds are immaculately kept. They can be overgrown with long grass, thorns and tendrils whipping around your knee and ankles, all hiding lots of biting insects. In wet weather the long grass may soak through points of contact. So stout, comfortable walking shoes are the order of the day. No heels, canvas shoes or open toed-sandals. Long trousers too. If it’s hot weather slap on the sunscreen and fetch your water. Pack waterproofs in case of a sudden downpour. And take something to kneel on – your waterproofs (if you’re not using them!) Even something as simple as a plastic bag comes in handy here. Without an improvised kneeler, damp, muddy trouser knees can be an uncomfortable occupational hazard of headstone photography – I speak from experience!

Take a pencil and notebook to record findings (including negative) and to write out problematical inscriptions, indicating where the gaps or issues are. It’s like a transcription exercise! In fact it may be prudent to copy in full all important inscriptions in your notebook, in case there is a problem with photographs which goes unnoticed until your return home.

And, sad to say, do take sensible safety precautions. Cemeteries can be lonely places. So explore in daylight, accompanied if possible, and not carrying lots of expensive kit.

Photograph. I take multiple snaps on both my camera and phone camera.  If there’s a sign indicating cemetery name, that’s the first image. It signposts where the subsequent headstone images were taken. 

Next, I take images of the full headstone from various angles, followed by close-ups of the inscription. These close-ups can run into several images depending on the headstone size, and the number and length of inscriptions. I include images from both back, front and, if appropriate the sides of the headstone. And don’t ignore the base of the headstone, peaking out at ground level. All these areas may contain inscriptions or additional details. One good example of this was the headstone of the Hallas Family at Kirkburton All Hallows. The front of the grave includes details of my 5x great grandparents Amos and Ann Hallas. Low down it indicates the grave owner is George Hallas, my 4x great grandfather. The reverse of the headstone has a gem of an inscription about the bizarre and unexpected way their daughter Esther met her death in July 1817, which I wrote about in my first ever blog post.

Front and Back of the Hallas Headstone at Kirkburton All Hallows – Photo by Jane Roberts

Finally, I take wider shots to include neighbouring headstones. These too may have a connection, as family headstones may be grouped together.

Once back home I can play about with image settings and use various photo editor apps and programmes. Manipulating the images may help overcome inscription legibility issues. 

Don’t be tempted to clean the headstone unless you know exactly what you’re doing, and you have permission. It can be frustrating if an inscription is obscured by algae or lichen, or if weathering has faded lettering. But irreparable damage can be done to the headstone by trying to clean it using inappropriate methods and products, or using remedies such as flour or shaving foam to make the engraving legible. And do remember some plants are actually protected by law. I personally stick to nothing more than a light dousing with water to see if that removes headstone dirt or improves legibility. For me, going beyond that is simply not worth the risk.

Record findings and check information. Do this as soon as possible after your trip, and include the visit date. Graveyards and headstones change over the years. It’s easy to put this mundane chore off, so it becomes caught up in a huge work backlog. Then you forget what you’ve done and where you’ve saved the information. It may even get damaged, erased or permanently lost. All of which could create more work in the long run – through trying to find your original photographs and notes, or even duplicating the work through unnecessary repeat visits.

Also, do not automatically accept any inscription as gospel. Headstones are not official records, and even official records are not immune from errors! Headstones may post-date an individual’s death by some years, and details may be mis-remembered. As a result, ages, dates and information may be incorrect. I’ve seen countless examples of this. As with any other source, headstone inscriptions should be not used in isolation. Their accuracy should be weighed up against other sources.

Hopefully these tips will help you plan your next family history cemetery expedition.

Footnote: Another trick is using a reflective surface, or torch, to light inscriptions from different angles, which can help deciphering them. With thanks to Sue Adams of Family Folk

It has also been suggested don’t take your children with you. After the initial spurt of enthusiasm they can easily get bored!

A Grave Plot: Rest In Peace?

One of my guilty pleasures is to wander round the local cemetery reading the inscriptions on headstones. I love a good old inscription. I can while away hours strolling along the pathways and across undulating ground, pausing to read the words or simply admire the beauty and variety of these monuments.  The joy that discovering a family headstone can bring is a thrill that many family historians will relate to. But I’m not fussy. Even if the family is unrelated to me, if the inscription captures my attention, I will research the story behind it. For example, see my post about a young couple from Batley who died as a result of a wartime seaside cliff fall.

I naively always assumed some kind of permanency with a headstone. That centuries later it would still stand, somewhat weather-worn but erect, a relic of a past era, a witness to a life long gone. But this ideal is far from true. Close to home I’ve witnessed it.

Early 20th Century Postcard of Batley Parish Church Showing Headstones – from Maggie Blanck’s Website at http://www.maggieblanck.com/Land/PhotosBatley.html

The claustrophobic jumble of headstones at All Saints Parish Church in Batley have long since gone. Similarly Mirfield St Mary’s Churchyard lost many of its old headstones, including that of my 5x great grandparents. I only know of it’s existence from a 19th century handwritten transcript of Memorial Inscriptions (MIs), via the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society (YAHS) whose archives are now located in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. A local car business on Staincliffe Hall Road, Batley, on the site of a former Methodist Chapel, had the graveyard headstones in its driveway. I clearly remember seeing them as a child, when the Chapel was converted to a baby clinic. More recently they have vanished. I’m not quite sure when, but I would love to know what became of them. One small crumb of comfort is it appears MIs do exist for them, again via the YAHS. Even councils are not immune to headstone destruction. In 2011 Kirklees was criticised for a money-saving scheme whereby headstones, with inscriptions clearly visible, were recycled to build a wall in Netherton.

Weathered Headstones at Tynemouth Priory – Photo by Jane Roberts

Even if they remain in situ, exposure to the elements may take their toll over time, wearing inscriptions to illegibility. They may be laid flat by councils if they are deemed unstable and potentially dangerous. Batley Cemetery, for example, is undergoing a memorial safety programme. I spent 15 unsuccessful minutes on hold with Kirkless Bereavement Services trying to find out what this entailed. From my visit to the cemetery often this means the headstones are frequently placed face-down, so those carefully thought-through lasting tributes are hidden forevermore. And with burial plots decreasing in availability, particularly in urban areas, many local authorities are looking at alternative strategies for public cemeteries. Then there is deliberate vandalism.

Batley Cemetery Headstones – Photo by Jane Roberts

One thing I did not realise until arranging dad’s funeral is the terms under which burial plots are owned. I mistakenly believed if you bought a burial plot it belonged to the family for ever. Not so. You are merely leasing the plot. In the case of Kirklees Council the lease term is 50 years. Some local authorities have leases of as little as 25 years. The maximum is 100 years. In short you are purchasing the exclusive right to say who will be buried in that grave for a set period. The family can choose to renew the lease for a fee. For this reason it is important to keep address and contact details up-to-date with the relevant council bereavement services.

If the lease is not renewed, the headstone can be removed and collected by the owner – or destroyed by the local authority. Existing burials in the plot are not removed or disturbed, but remaining space in the plot may be resold.  So, with space for burial plots running low, the permenancy of headstones faces an extra threat.  Southwark Council, for example, face opposition to their cemetery plans with claims by Friends of Camberwell Cemeteries  that they are a ‘Grave Reuse and Reclamation Burial Strategy‘.

All this means the work of Family History Society volunteers, cemetery friends groups, those conducting one-place studies, projects such as BillionGraves and individuals in recording MIs will become ever more valuable. For example the Mirfield St Mary’s ones I mentioned earlier in this piece are included on the Kirkheaton Info Archive Database.

So do not assume that headstone will be there for ever. Photograph it now and make a note of that inscription just in case. And check out various archives, one-place studies websites, cemetery groups and Family History Societies for MI transcripts.