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Searching for the Deceased


  • Searching for the Deceased

    Memorial Wall Jess.jpgOnce you have a death certificate for your ancestor you may want to find out what happened to their body. This will mean investigating burial records and, if the death was in the last few decades, cremation records.


    If the death occurred before 1900 then it is extremely unlikely the body will have been cremated. Before 1901 there were only about 100 cremations in England and Wales and even after legislation was passed in 1902 setting out procedural rules for cremation, many people were against the idea of burning a body for both religious and superstitious reasons. The Roman Catholic church did not approve cremation until the mid 1960's.

    If you think your relation may have been cremated you will need to contact the local council in the area where you believe the cremation took place. Usually this will be the nearest cemetery to their place of death or nearest to their home address (if different). After cremation the ashes will have been disposed of. The council may hold records of what happened to the ashes, but if a casket was passed to a family member or friend there will be no further official record of what happened to the ashes. There should, however, be an entry in the crematoria book of remembrance.


    Burial stone submitted by Merry.jpgIn cities and large towns church burial became less common during the late Victorian era as many churchyards were closed due to all the grave spaces having been used. In the 20th century this also happened in small towns and even in some villages. By WW2 very few people were automatically given space in their parish churchyard. Very often only those who had made prior arrangements or had a family vault in the churchyard would be able to have a church burial.

    Also consider that if the deceased person was a non-conformist they may be buried in a cemetery as many non-conformist churches do not have burial space. Before the advent of cemeteries only some London non-conformists had the opportunity to use burial grounds such as Bunhill Fields which opened in the 1650's at the north of the city and was used exclusively by non-conformists. Jewish burial grounds were set up in the East End of London from the 1650's.

    Cemeteries have areas of consecrated ground for Church of England burials and non-consecrated ground for all other burials which may be divided into areas for non-conformist, Jewish and other non-Christan religions. "Consecrated" means the area of ground has been blessed by a Church of England bishop. Conversely, before the advent of cemeteries, non-conformists who died outside London were regularly buried in Church of England graveyards, there being nowhere else. The service would usually be conducted by their own minister.

    Before cemeteries, the unbaptised were buried in the parish churchyard, but might not have the benefit of the Church of England burial service read over the grave or the tolling of the church bell. This was the case for both babies and adults. In the more distant past suicides were buried in unconsecrated ground and you may not find any record of their burial.

    Finding those buried in a cemetery

    If you think your relative may have been buried in a cemetery then in order to find the grave you will need to contact the local authority (council) who will hold the cemetery records for the area they control. Often the department will be listed as "bereavement services" on their website. Some local councils charge a fee for doing a look up whilst others go so far as to have their records available online to search.

    Once you have traced the burial record the council will normally be able to pinpoint exactly where the grave is situated and whether it is marked or not. If you visit the cemetery the council will often be able to send an official to direct you to the grave if you give them some notice.

    St Marys Chesham submitted by Caroline.jpgRecords for church burials

    Records for church burials are held by the County Record Office local to the church in question. If the burial was in the last few decades it would be worth checking if the burial records have been passed to the CRO, as if they have not, you will need to contact the church minister. Church ministers will usually charge a small fee for checking their records for a burial.

    If you find a burial record at the CRO (this may mean you will have to search films of the burial register or consult transcripts of the same - often sorted into alphabetical order!) this may not mean you can find the grave in the churchyard. Often plans of the churchyard, usually recorded by the sexton, have not survived and if the grave is not marked this may be as far as your search will take you, but at least you will know that the body of your relative resides in a particular churchyard and you could still investigate to see if the grave is marked with a gravestone.

    Beware that a gravestone or memorial stone may not indicate the final resting place of your relative. If there is no burial record to match the inscription, the body may have been interred elsewhere, though often this is made clear in the inscription.

    What if you can't find your ancestors burial record at the cemetery or local churchyard?

    Not everyone is buried close to their place of death or to their last address. If you cannot find your relatives burial record consider where they lived during their lifetime, or even where they were born or where their parents, spouse or other relatives were buried.

    Local Councils

    Some local councils have an online index of cemetery burials. You will need to search the local council website to see what is available.


    If a person left a will it may give specific instructions for the disposal of their body.

    County Family History Societies

    Try contacting the Country Records Office for burials in a specific county - they may sell CDs of burial records or memorial inscriptions and/or will offer a lookup service.

    Funeral Directors

    Some funeral directors keep archives and many have been in business for several decades. If you cannot find a burial or cremation it might be worth contacting local undertakers as they may have a record of transporting a coffin to another part of the country.


    Even if a church has a closed graveyard, it may still hold a record of burial services held at the church. They may or may not have a record of where the body was taken for interment or cremation.

    Gravestones, Memorials and Memorial Inscriptions

    Since before Victorian times, memorials have been erected at the head of many graves as a permanent reminder of those buried within. It has often been wrongly assumed that memorials are permanent structures, installed to the highest standards, and will last forever without any need for repair. This of course is not the case.

    Once you have discovered the cemetery or graveyard where your relative is buried you may want to find out if the grave is marked in any way. If the burial took place at a cemetery then the local council should be able to tell you if the grave had a stone erected and the position of the grave within the cemetery. If the burial was at a churchyard you may have to visit to investigate or, if you are lucky, you may source a list of memorial inscriptions for the churchyard in question.

    Over the last few decades many people have volunteered to record the details of inscriptions on gravestones. These records may include the full inscription, including any poems etc or may just record names and dates engraved on the memorial. In most cases these lists of Memorial Inscriptions (MIs) and an accompanying plan of the churchyard will be lodged at the local County Record Office. Some county family history societies will also have details of MIs which they may sell in the form of a microfiche or booklet.

    If you are lucky you may find that an inscription on a gravestone helps you with your family history, as it may confirm a relationship, or perhaps confirm a date of birth or death for someone, helping to identify their correct birth, baptism or death record. Occasionally an inscription might be added to a stone commemorating the life of someone who died in a different part of the country or even who died abroad or was lost at sea. This could be the only record showing what happened to them.

    Visiting a Churchyard or Cemetery

    Last resting place submitted by Jess.jpgGreat care should be taken when walking through a graveyard or cemetery. Some may have paved paths, but more often than not, the area is simply laid to grass and quite often only rough mown, especially in older cemeteries, concealing all sorts of hazards, including rabbit holes. Some areas may not even be mown and will be a riot of brambles and nettles, so do consider appropriate footwear.

    It is never safe to assume that a headstone or monument is safe and not likely to fall. Many become eroded over time and may well present a hazard.

    Never underestimate how difficult it might be to find the grave of your ancestor! Particularly in an old churchyard, where graves are not always laid out in straight rows, even with a plan of the area it may take quite a while to trace the stone you are looking for. Without a plan or knowledge of whether there is a stone at all, you may find yourself having to examine every gravestone in the churchyard. This can take all day or a series of visits. You have been warned! Tracing the correct stone is often made even more difficult as the passage of time wears away any engraving, making them virtually illegible. Sometimes the MI list you may have been lucky enough to trace may be several decades old and so reminds us how important it is that memorial details are recorded before it is too late.

    Having found the grave of your ancestor, you maybe a bit taken aback at its state of repair. Over time graves get tangled with weeds and flat laid stones covered with undergrowth and grass, especially if mowing are not collected.

    What can I do and what can't I?

    In theory, you should always obtain permission from the next of kin to do anything to a grave or headstone. In practice this is not always possible.

    For many of us the purpose of tracing a burial plot of our relative is to pay our respects and also to record what we have found. So, you will want to read the inscription and probably take photographs.

    The stone may be covered in ivy or brambles or other vegetation. It may be in long grass or have lichen growing on the surface. Some stones will have suffered damage from the rain such as spalding, where the face of the stone has disintegrated, or the stone may have become broken into several pieces.

    Improving the Inscription

    Before clearing submitted by Jess.jpgAt first glance you may feel the situation is hopeless and you will never read the inscription as it is illegible. This may of course be true in some cases, but it is surprising what tricks can help you overcome some of these problems.

    Firstly, you may need to remove any large amount of plant growth from the face of the stone. If this is bramble, then it will be prickly and if nettles you may be stung, so a pair of gardening gloves could save you pain, but the growth should not actually be fixed to the stone and should come away easily. Ivy is more troublesome as it has aerial roots which will attach themselves and could cause damage to the stone if they are ripped away without care. It is probably best to remove the lengths of ivy with the help of a pair of secateurs or scissors and then only pick away at any aerial roots which cover the actual inscription where it cannot be read easily. If there is lichen growing on the stone it is important not to be too rough in trying to remove it. Concentrate on the inscription area only and then only on the parts where the words cannot be deciphered. You may find sufficient growth can be removed by gentle rubbing with the flat of your hand or a soft brush.

    After clearing submitted by Jess.jpgOnce the stone is a little cleaner consider whether you can see all of it. It's surprising how often trimming long grass at the base of a stone or even removing a little soil that has built up around the base reveals a second or subsequent inscription previously hidden. Also check if there is a footstone or any further part of the memorial that may not be obvious in long grass. Any part may have an inscription.

    In order to help reading worn inscriptions it may be helpful to increase the contrast between the face of the stone and the engraved lettering. Try a little talcum powder rubbed over the surface with the flat of your hand. This should lighten the surface whilst leaving the indented lettering darker. The talc will wash away next time it rains. Water on the face of a stone can also help separate the lettering from the rest by darkening the surface, so take a sponge and a bottle of water.

    Photographing the Stone

    The important thing to remember is to try not to photograph the gravestone in full sunlight with the sun shining directly on the inscription. What you are looking for is contrast between the face of the stone and the indented lettering, so the sun casting shadows in the indentations is preferred. Also, if the stone is shiny and the weather is dull, don't be tempted to use flash as you may end up with a flare on your photo just where the inscription should be.

    Whilst taking photos is great, it's always a good idea to write out the wording of the inscription in a note book, in case everything is not as clear as you had hoped once the photos are viewed at full size.

    Paying Your Respects

    You may wish to leave flowers on the grave. If you have located a grave via a Borough Council, its a good idea to ask what particular policies are in place within the cemetery that you are planning to visit; Some, for instance, allow only fresh flowers -not artificial - and some, where areas are gang mown, no flowers at all. Please take time to check.

    When you leave the grave area it is important to leave everything looking relatively undisturbed. If you have cleared away a lot of vegetation it is not necessary to put all this back, but try and leave things in keeping with the surroundings as far as possible.

    ResourcesSee also FTF Guide: Medical Terms and Diseases

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