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 on.
Author: Navin Kumar Jaggi
Co-Author: Gurmeet Singh Jaggi