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Monumental Inscriptions as a Family History Research Source

15:45 Tue 25th Jan 2011 |

Monumental Inscriptions as a Family History Research Source

Church graveyards can be lonely, isolated places where contemplation and memories are your only thoughts. How many of you have had cause to wander the rows and rows of stones during a visit to a church and felt sorrow at the names and ages of small children? Or perhaps you have paused to think about the plain white cross of the eternal teenager lost in the Great War, tragically brought home to be buried in their home parish amongst those that survived them to great age?

In any churchyard you will find memorial stones of every shape, size and design. Each memorial stone reflects the status and standing in the parish of whole families across generations. Some may be simple stones marked with a cluster of initials; others can be huge slab-topped tombs with elaborate prose inscribed onto them.

These monuments to our ancestors and the inscriptions their loved ones pondered over and chose with such care are an amazing source of information that we can freely access and add to our family history.

Burials originally took place inside the church. If the deceased was of high standing in the parish they would be interred close to the altar. Inscriptions were added to the covering stones to record the location of a burial. The noted members of a parish may well have had a plaque or memorial placed in a prominent location on the inside wall of the church, to remind the peasant-folk of how great their Lord and Master was and how much they should miss him.

As churches were filled with burials and space became tight, the graves were eventually dug in the surrounding church grounds, although not six-feet down at first, but when it was realised that six feet was the depth that a roaming pig could not climb in and out of, it became the adopted depth. Eventually a churchyard wall would be built to protect the graves from roaming animals.

Consecrated ground around the church grew over time, eventually extending into the graveyards we have today. Most church graveyards can be divided up into rows that encapsulate specific periods of time. Interment, exhumation and re-burial or re-sitting of original stones has added to the make-up and organisation of a churchyard.

So, how do I locate a grave and discover if there is a surviving MI (Monumental Inscription)?

A parish record of all burials would have been recorded in a burial register. Up until the 20th century this register entry would usually imply that the deceased was buried in the churchyard, as the entry would be made after the funeral took place. However, with the development of civic cemeteries from the later 1870s, and crematoriums from the 20th century this was not always the case.

There are several ways to establish where you will locate a possible burial for an ancestor, the first step being to establish where they lived and died. Urban locations can be the most difficult and the options far greater.

There are several sources that should be used for locating a burial outside of the parish records.

The National Burial Index:

This is a limited resource that can be accessed online or by purchasing the CD set.

Alternatively, you can look for monumental inscriptions recorded and published by individuals. Church groups or family history societies are extremely valuable resources. These vary in format and in availability.  The recording of MIs varies in its planning, recording, archiving and publication media. 

Many recording projects were carried out by volunteers working to simple guidelines and for charitable purposes as well as genealogical aims, yet this does not mean that they were in any way inaccurate and so they have become an amazingly useful resource.  The only drawback is location the published research.  This can be done by checking the GENUKI page for each Parish/village ( where detailed information on available records is listed.  Alternatively you can contact the County Archive where there should be an index to Burial Grounds, Churchyards and Cemeteries which should include information on any MI projects published or archived. For instance:

The Federation of Family History Societies maintains their charitable status by the ongoing transcription projects that cover the surveys and recordings of graveyards.

These projects are based at County level where the local group will operate a project and deposit the results with the Church itself and also make available to it's members and the general public, the end result.  For example, along with a vast catalogue of indexes and booklets, Lincolnshire Family History Society has published a large collection of it's County MIs:

Access to these indexes varies but the availability online is massive, for Lancashire, a joint project by Family History Societies, County Archivists and Researchers had produced this online resource: In which you can locate burials initially to enable you to pinpoint a Churchyard and then locate any MI project, or even visit in person!


A headstone inscription can vary in detail, the name, age or date of birth and death is usually found.  Relationships can be confirmed or discovered, occupations can be included or clues given, recently finding a grave I noted an urn on the top of the grave had been 'donated by his colleagues at Victoria Pit'. Wandering around a graveyard in a place that you know your ancestors lived is always worthwhile, as long as you have the pertinent surnames in mind.  I have often done this, taking along a small notebook and my camera. Taking photos of a discovered stone is important in that it helps you and your family in the future to locate and identify the location within the burial ground, as over time the layout of a yard may change.  It is however an uncanny fact that small children taken to a grandparents grave can invariably, many years later, instinctively lead you to that precise grave location. That has been proven many times over in my experience.


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