Parish Burial Registers. In my post “Parish Chest Records “ I promised I would write more about each set of documents likely to be found in the Parish Chest. I am breaking the topic of parish registers into three posts; Baptisms, Marriages and Burials as I would like you to know the background to each so that you can approach searching parish registers with a good knowledge of the records and thereby get the most out of your researches.
This post is about the parish burial registers, when they started, why they were created and where to find them online.
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Parish Burial Registers – Why and When did they start to be kept?
In 1538 after the split with the Roman Catholic Church Henry 8th Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell, sent out an edict that every parish priest must keep a record of each baptism, marriage and burial that took place in their parish. With some reluctance the parish clergy complied and as there had been no instruction as to how these records were to be kept some noted the events on loose sheets of parchment rather than a bound book. The parchment sheets would have been expensive to buy, but not as costly as a bound book and for many parishes this would be a major consideration. The entries were to be written at the end of each week in the presence of the Churchwardens. The records were to be kept in a coffer with two locks, one key to be kept by the priest and the other by the churchwardens. A fine was levied if the parish failed to comply.
By the time Elizabeth 1st came to the throne it was recognised that the parish records may have been recorded, but they weren’t being kept in an orderly manner by many parishes. In 1598 another ruling went out to the clergy that the parish must purchase a ‘great decent book of parchment’ and the previous entries “especially from the first year of Her Majesty’s reign” (1558) were to be copied into the new registers. As you can imagine some clergy only did the minimum and copied the entries from 1558, other entered all the entries from the loose sheets of parchment that they could find, whilst those parishes who had purchased a parchment book at the start in 1538 were very smug as they didn’t have to do anything at all!
The events were to be recorded in the register in the presence of two churchwardens once a week and then read out after Sunday evensong so that the whole parish knew what had occurred and no doubt so that any errors could be corrected. The books were to be kept in the parish chest which was now to have three locks, keys held by the Vicar and two churchwardens.
It was also at this time that Bishop Transcripts were to be made and sent each month (some parishes only sent them in yearly) to the Bishop at the local diocesan. These B.T’s as they are often called are a valuable source of information if the original registers have not survived. B.T’s may also have additional notes which aren’t recorded in the parish registers so are always worth searching.
It should also be noted that many parish registers have gaps during the Commonwealth Period 1653 – 1660 and some may have missing entries even earlier. A local resident was appointed at the time to record births, marriages and deaths. Sometimes the parish registers were used for this purpose, other times a new book was used. Plus to add to the confusion the person in charge of recording these events was called the Parish Register. I will cover the Commonwealth Period in a separate post.
Of the three life events that the parish registers recorded burial is the one that could not be avoided. A couple might not marry, children might not be baptised (although the parish priest would have plenty to say about that!), but once death occurs then the body has to be disposed of and the only way that could be legally done was by burial. Life expectancy was somewhat shorter centuries ago especially in large towns and cities. The countryside wasn’t without it’s dangers either with accidents and injuries abounding in agricultural life. So the record of burials can be one of the largest sections of the parish registers until antibiotics etc. were developed.
The records recorded in the parish burial registers from 1538 until 1813 were quite basic, the name of the deceased, where they lived if outside of the parish where they were buried, possibly their age and the date of burial. This can cause you problems when there are several people with the same name in the parish, sometimes the cleric appreciated the problem and might add senior or junior, the elder or the younger to the name. If the death was unusual in any way that also might be written down. if the person was unknown then the entry will state where they were found and a general description of the person such as “A middle aged man found drowned in Pitt Farm pond, name unknown”.
Women may be described as the widow or wife of her husband. For example “Sarah widow of Robert Smith”. Sometimes if this information is written the first name of the woman is omitted and she is simply described as Widow Smith. If a child or young person dies then they may be described as “the son of” or “the daughter of”. Sometimes for males an occupation is given. You may see a P written next to a burial entry, this indicates that the person buried was a pauper and therefore exempt from paying a fee. Over the centuries various fees were levied for baptisms, marriages and burials, but the poorest did not have to pay. As there were no facilities for keeping bodies in a safe condition for long periods of time burials usually took place within a few days of the death.
In the early period entries were written in Latin, but do not be put off by this as there are several genealogy latin primers which can help with the task. I use two books, the first is Latin For Local and Family Historians by Denis Stuart and the other is A Latin Glossary for Family and Local Historians by Janet Morris. By 1733 it was decided that entries should be in English rather than Latin, but by then most of the registers were already being written in English.
In the latter half of the 17th century the wool trade in England was suffering from decline so a number of acts was passed making it compulsory for all corpses to be buried in a shroud made of wool. An affidavit had to be declared by someone who had viewed the body prior to burial to confirm that the shroud had been made of wool. These affidavits were usually sworn before the local clergyman or Justice of the Peace. The poor and plague victims were exempt. Wealthy families who wished to bury their dead in linen or some other material could pay a fine to allow this to happen.
These affidavits sometimes were written alongside the burial entry and sometimes were on separate papers. Later there were pre printed forms that could be filled in. The person who made the affidavit generally was a family member or a local woman who took on the job of laying out the parish dead.
In 1812 Rose’s Act was passed and this stipulated that registers were to be better kept and preserved. From 1813 printed registers one for each event were supplied by the King’s printing press and these registers have remained almost unchanged to the present time. In the post 1813 burial registers you can expect to find
- Date of burial
- Full name
- Officiating clergy
Burials At Sea
A quick word about burials at sea, obviously when a death occurred at sea the body was disposed of, with due ceremony in most cases, at sea. That is unless you were someone of national importance such as Lord Nelson who very soon after his death was preserved in a barrel of brandy which was then replaced by spirits of wine when the Victory called into Gibraltar before carrying onto England. A full account of this can be found on The National Archives website – Click Here.
FindMyPast has registers for deaths at sea 1781 – 1968. This data-set is a combination of nine record sets held at The National Archives, Kew. The original records have been digitised and indexed making searching very easy.
Ancestry has registers of deaths at sea 1844 – 1890 from almost the identical set of records as FindMyPast, but FindMyPast has a longer time period. Ancestry’s records are also digitised images and indexed.
Parish Burial Registers Online
Both Ancestry and FindMyPast have parish burial register indexes, transcripts and images online. It can be confusing which company has entered into an agreement with which county archives to digitise the parish registers. Because of this difficulty I wrote a post “English Parish Registers Online – Who Has Which Counties?” which I suggest you check to see where the parish registers you seek are available online. I will keep that post updated and reissued as changes occur.
There are websites like FamilySearch and FreeReg that offer indexes and transcriptions online for free. Whilst these can be very helpful, especially when there aren’t any other online sources for the parish you wish to search, I strongly advise always reading the original register yourself as it is only human that errors in transcripts and indexing will occur. Likewise if a search on Ancestry or FindMyPast brings up a nil result then search the original parish register images yourself page by page over the time period and in the parish where you think the marriage should have happened. Both FindMyPast and Ancestry also have transcripts and indexes online especially when they do not hold the original register images.
Parish Burial Registers – Summary
I hope this brief run down of parish burial registers has given you a better understanding of what to expect when you are searching for a burial. It is vital to know as much as possible about why a record was created and how it was recorded when you are creating your family history, also it makes the search that much more interesting.
The next post in this series will be on about Bishops Transcripts.