Gravestones found in Churchyards and cemeteries (and sometimes called
monumental inscriptions ‘MIs’ for short), can provide detailed and often unique
information on ancestors and their families and can be one of the most tangible
remains of our forebears that we will ever encounter.
Most tools used for tracing family trees are written documents, but not all.
Gravestones are, in fact, documents carved on stone rather than written on
paper, but because of this, they are sometimes overlooked by family historians
working in warm, dry record offices. Besides the fascinating information
gravestones can give us, they also provide a form of physical contact with the
past. Ancestors who existed simply as names on a page suddenly seem much more
real when you realise their bones lie beneath your feet, and you can reach out
and touch the stone erected by their grieving kin. The graves of the rich can
stir us with pride in our distinguished forebears, but we can be equally if not
more moved by the humble graves of our poorer ancestors.
Besides the name and date of death of the deceased, you may also find
occupation, age at death or dates, and even place of birth as well as the names
and similar details of the spouse, children and other relatives sharing the same
grave. By walking around the graveyard you may encounter graves of others with
the same surname, which might turn out to have been those of relations.
You will not always find them many poor people were buried in graves marked by
wooden crosses, or nothing at all. The inscriptions may have been made years
later, and consequently with inaccurate information. Many have now been worn
away or the stones may have been stacked in a corner or moved entirely. Those
for one London church have been moved to Yorkshire to become the graveyard of
the made-up village of television's long-running soap Emmerdale.
Many burials took place in cemeteries rather than churchyards. Some have existed
for centuries, such as Bunhill Fields non-conformist burial ground in London,
founded in 1665 (with registers 1713-52 in the NA in class RG 4/3974--3987,
1713-94). Most cemeteries date from the 19th century, when graveyards were
becoming full up. Highgate Cemetery in north London is probably the most famous
one in London, but many Londoners were taken by train (from a special platform
at Waterloo Station, whose entrance can still be seen today) to Brookwood
Cemetery near Woking, Surrey.
Apart from a few amateur efforts, the first public cremation took place at
Woking Crematorium in 1885. It became the most popular method of disposing of
bodies in the mid-20th century.
Another form of memorial, which you are most likely to find in family papers, is
memorial cards. Besides being tangible 4 evidence of a relative, they provide
very useful information. The date of death may lead to a death certificate (and
thus an address for census searching), will or obituary, and often other
relatives will be mentioned, such as grieving parents, spouses, children and so
- Navin Kumar Jaggi
- Gurmeet Singh Jaggi