Last time I wrote about Genealogy Building Blocks we covered birth, marriage and death indexes and certificates, I hope you found that helpful and have been using the indexes and finding your ancestors back to the start of civil registration in 1837. This time I am going to explain about cemetery records.
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Cemeteries and church yards – are they all the same thing?
Actually they aren’t – the common link is that they are all places of burial, but after that the similarity ends. The term Churchyard refers to the land surrounding a church (occasionally apart from a church) that is administered by the ecclesiastical authorities who own and run the church or chapel. Cemeteries are run by local council authorities or by private companies. Cemeteries came about because of the overcrowding of churchyards in the Victorian period, the repercussions of too many bodies in too small a space were illness, disease, contaminated drinking water and scandalous practices by gravediggers to make sure there was always room for one more.
The outcome of several scandals that were widely reported in the newspapers was a series of Parliamentary Acts dating from 1852 – 1881. The situation was widely known prior to that and an act of 1832 encouraged a number of entrepreneurs to form companies and establish cemeteries just outside of the major cities. London is a good example of this and Wikipedia gives a good overview of the seven London Cemeteries that are known as the Magnificent Seven. There is an excellent book that gives the history of the London cemeteries “London Cemeteries: An Illustrated Guide & Gazetteer” by Hugh Mellor, which I can recommend. If you get a chance do visit one – or all!- of the London Cemeteries, they are fascinating places and reflect the Victorian attitude to death and the ceremonies attached to it. Genealogy and cemeteries go together and I think most family historians like a wander round an old churchyard or cemetery even if our families think it is weird!! I give a lecture called “The Sad Tale of Reuben Roome” which I might turn into a Youtube video sometime which tells all about the London situation.
Cemetery Records – who has them?
Most of the private companies that set up the large cemeteries, usually on the outskirts of town went bankrupt as the maintenance costs were far greater than they estimated and of course once you have sold a grave plot in perpetuity you can’t sell it again. Well actually even though you shouldn’t Lambeth Council did – illegally! See the end of this article.
Most large previously privately owned cemeteries have been taken over by local councils who administer the records. Many are still active, some have been closed for further interments. The records can be found with the local councils with some having been transferred to local archives. Either way they are generally well looked after and an email or phone call to the council in whose area the cemetery you are interested in is situated will give you details of where the records are. However always check first that they aren’t already online as many of the local authorities charge very large fees for supplying information from their records.
Cemetery Records – Online
More and more records useful to the genealogist are coming online on various websites. For the UK the main website is DeceasedOnline it is the best single source of cemetery records for the country. Their website is super easy to use and you can choose to pay per document viewed or buy a subscription if you are going to use the website extensively. If you go to their website and click the Coverage tab at the top you can see what cemeteries are included in the database.
Quite a few councils have put their cemeteries records online for free for instance ……
Warrington Borough Council – http://burialrecords.warrington.gov.uk/
Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames –https://www.kingston.gov.uk
City of Manchester – http://www.burialrecords.manchester.gov.uk/
And there are lots more so it is worthwhile doing a Google search.
Cemetery Records – what can you expect to find in them?
The good news is that cemetery records often contain more information than church burial registers. You may find all or some of the following:-
Plot number – Name of deceased – Home address
Age – Date of death & burial – Next of kin
The registers vary from cemetery to cemetery, but generally they are quite informative. On DeceasedOnline you also have the option of finding out who else is buried in the same plot. If it is a large number of seemingly unrelated names this could indicate that it was a common grave and not an individually purchased plot. This is not to say it was a paupers funeral, it just indicates that the family did not have the money to buy a separate plot or chose not to. Purchased plots can have space for up to three burials. Common graves can accommodate several dozen in a long trench like plot. Also on DeceasedOnline and on some council websites there are also plans of the cemeteries so that you can locate a grave if you wish to visit.
Lambeth Council Scandal
Due to neglect Lambeth Council compulsorily purchased West Norwood Cemetery in 1965 & decided in their wisdom to end all rights of plot holders. They didn’t inform the plot holders of this, they just did it. The council officers put reliance on a number of legislations which didn’t apply to what they were doing. Basically they make a huge mistake. They then proceeded to “tidy” up the cemetery and flattened 10,000 monuments so making, in their minds, the land ready for new burials. They proceeded to sell grave plots which already contained bodies to unsuspecting new purchasers.
Locals who were appalled by the actions of the council formed the Friends of West Norwood and with the support of an equally outraged Church of England the councils actions were taken before the Consistory Court. In 1994 they were found to have acted illegally, must desist and compensate the owners of those plots which had been re-sold. It was a timely warning for other councils not to try to reuse land
The outcome of this turned out to be a bonus for genealogists … the Resold Grave Database. Not a complete listing of all graves at West Norwood, only those re-sold. Descendants of those whose graves have been re-sold can apply for compensation by the council.
I think I need to write another post about the London Cemeteries……perhaps the next post on Wednesday.
Happy Ancestor Hunting.
West Norwood photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
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