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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
One cannot over-emphasize the importance of finishing them off! It is a great mistake for family historians to give records of death and burial a low priority, for the following reasons:
- A family tree produced without conclusive proof of each ancestor’s death is highly susceptible to error.
- Tracing the details of death, ironically, will bring life to the family trees we are researching.
- In former times mortality rates were so high that our attitude towards death was different.
- Any death in the family changed its structure and may have had significant ramifications for your ancestors’ lives.
- There are more types of records concerning a person’s death than for any other event in their mortal span, and many of them can give so much useful detail.
- If one record gives only minimal information then there are so many others to consult that the determined researcher will usually be rewarded.
Cause of Death, Certificates and Permits
English death certificates give the cause of death, (not always reliably in the 19th century). Gibson & Rogers should be consulted for which coroners’ records survive, and Jenkins discusses deaths at sea. Certificates of registry of death (or for disposal of bodies) the latter also covers details for burial records in the Church of England, where causes of death are sometimes given. Certificates of burial or cremation are now required to be filed; note that cremation became legal in Britain in 1884, but the Roman Catholic Church banned it in 1886. Few hospital and doctor’s records are filmed yet but may be available in archives or at the hospital; they are discussed earlier in this course. Newspapers tend to report deaths of the village worthies and very aged inhabitants, and Barnard has shown how they often have more details on the circumstances of violent and unusual deaths than the inquests themselves, which may not survive anyway.
Burial Customs and Records
The foremost authority on burial rites and customs is Litton, and Huggett has some fascinating insights. Armstrong, Fearn, and Wood have all written interesting articles on burials. May wrote the well-illustrated Shire book describing the elaborate Victorian rituals which included black plumed horses, elaborate hearse, mutes (professional mourners) and black featherboard for the funeral procession. Money for mourning items such as rings or gloves was often left in a will and the wearing of black crepe fashions, jet jewellery, or a locket with hair from the deceased were popular.
Researchers in London are likely to run intoBills of Mortality from the 16th century until the mid 19th century. These were weekly statements, compiled by the Company of Parish Clerks, of the numbers of dead and causes of death for the City of London and its adjoining parishes
In England, most villages had a religious fraternity, which developed into a burial guild, and by the 17th century a friendly society, with grander ones in towns, with the highest ‘upmarket’ one being the College of Heralds setting the rules. Regular contributions were collected from those anxious to be sent off properly. Record books and annual reports detailing individual contributions and benefits are listed. As an example, in 1860 members of the Leek (Staffordshire) Benevolent Burial Society paid a penny a week and funeral benefits ranged from £3 to £5.
Places of Burial
The Church of England Parish Registers, non-denominational urban cemeteries and crematoria are covered in the National Institute for Genealogical Studies course English: Parish Registers. This course also contains information on sexton’s grave books, burial plot deeds, burial plot records andburial taxes
Nonconformist burial grounds have been described in the National Institute for Genealogical Studies courseEnglish: Non-Anglican Church Records, including examples of Non-Anglicans buried in Anglican churchyards. There are also ethnic, military, and fraternal cemeteries as well as family burying grounds on estates or farms, and institutional burial grounds such as workhouses, hospitals and prisons for those unfortunates who ended up there.
Funeral Accounts & Records
The role of the funeral director (or undertaker) in Victorian times is amply depicted by May. It is worth looking for the local establishment, which may have preserved its records or deposited them at an archive. Families tended to patronise the same firm for all their funerals. Many firms of monumental masons have records which go back farther than those of undertakers in the vicinity, particularly where the skills of the trade have been passed down through a family business. When an approximate date is known then they will usually search their records.
Cards & Stationery
Small memorial/mourning/funeral cards with relevant particulars were sent out after the funeral and have often survived amongst family memorabilia. The fashionable used black-edged notepaper and envelopes during the mourning period.
There are printed collections of obituaries for prominent people, for example:
- Musgrave’s Obituary culled from annual and historical registers, the Scots Magazine and theEuropean Magazine in six volumes on three films 0162064-6 and now on CD by ArchiveCD Books.
- Index to Gentleman’s Magazine obituaries 1731-80 on GSU film 0844664.
- The Daily Telegraph Books of Obituaries (Massingberd).
- Several others, particularly of religious denominations and leading societies on the FHLC under COUNTRY–OBITUARIES plus subsections DICTIONARIES and INDEXES.
- There are over two million obituaries from US newspapers so far on and these include many people born in Britain.
There are actually five types of death entries in periodicals, but many contain a mixture of these elements:
- Notices of death noting when and where the funeral will take place.
- Reports of funerals describing the ceremony and attendees, wreaths and so forth.
- Thanks from families to friends for their support.
- Obituaries, sometimes with extensive biographical detail.
- In Memoria on the anniversary of a death.
Newspapers are the obvious place to start looking, but only prominent people featured in The Times, which is indexed (look under Deaths and Memorials rather than Obituaries). Notices of death and obits for most folk start in the late 19th century in local newspapers, which may have an index at a local archive. The example in the chart below is typical, being part announcement, part biography and part funeral report. These can give good lists of relations, friends and neighbours although errors occur – Thomas should be Thom in two cases here. Note who sent flowers as this indicates the interests and social network of the deceased and thus provides clues for obtaining further information.
Testimonials can occur in burial registers and some examples are in the course English: Parish Registers. Religious denominational magazines are a great source of material. Occupational magazines, trade union journals etc. are also fruitful avenues to pursue.
1961 Obituary for Herbert Gardner
(From the personal collection of Dr. Penelope Christensen)
The term monumental inscription is used to include not only tombstones but also inscriptions on coffin plates, interior church memorials (brass & stone plaques, sculptured effigies & carved tombs),bells, church furniture (pews, lecterns, chandeliers, organs), church plate, candlesticks, windows, and benefactors boards. There are well-illustrated booklets on church monuments by Brian Kemp (Church Monuments), and brasses by Leigh Chapman (Church Memorial Brasses and Brass Rubbing), and Malcolm Cook (Discovering Brasses and Brass Rubbing), as well as a Monumental Brass Society.
Early headstones were actually made of wood, consisting of two posts with a plank between them which bore the inscription. These were known as grave-boards,grave-rails, bed-heads, or leaping-boards but few lasted beyond a hundred years, so few survive today. It is important to compare the tombstone inscription with the grave record as sometimes the latter records persons not mentioned on the tombstone, and sometimes the MI refers to people buried elsewhere.
D.W.J. Cruikshank noted a lucky find in his family, a church wall monument having details of 24 people of four generations. Chapman described the history and genealogical value of MIs, and discusses the genealogically-valuable collection of funeral certificates for armigerous families 1567-1688 held by the College of Arms.
Transcription of MIs has been going on for centuries, the interest in family history spurring the national campaign by FHSs in the late 1970s to record and publish all pre-1900 inscriptions. These are now available in various formats, but it is useful to search out the older transcripts as well, because many of them include memorials which had disintegrated before the 20th century.Hayward’s Epitaphs, a huge collection recorded between 1764 and 1778 and now at the British Library is perhaps the largest of these and has been described by Norman Hidden.
Chart: Monumental Symbolism
|| Hope; rest|
|| Guardian of the dead; God’s messengers|
|| Passageway into the next life|
|| The Bible i.e. Faith; book of life|
| Column, broken
| Column, complete
|| A complete & full life|
|| The crown of the Christian martyr whose reward awaits him in heaven after his suffering on earth.|
|| The Holy Spirit; peace|
| Flower, severed
|| Untimely death|
| Forefinger pointing down
|| God reaching down for the soul|
| Forefinger pointing up
|| Soul has gone to heaven|
|| Passageway into the next life|
| Half-carved, half not
|| Transition from life to death|
| Hands, clasped
|| Matrimony; God’s welcome into heaven|
|| Love & devotion; soul in bliss; romantic love|
|| Strength and courage|
| Hour Glass
|| Father Time; flight of time|
|| Immortality; undying friendship|
|| Innocence (usually on children’s graves); gentleness, purity|
|| Immortality; the undying flame; the light which leads to a knowledge of God|
|| Fame, usually on grave of a writer, musician or artist|
|| Purity; resurrection|
|| Resurrection; strength and courage|
| Palm leaves
|| Resurrection |
|| Resurrection of Christ|
|| The Christian Church|
|| Motherhood; beauty|
|| Pilgrimage to God or Heaven|
|| The Christian Church, carrying the faithful on their journey through life|
| Sickle or scythe
|| Death; Father Time|
| Skull & crossbones
|| Mortal remains of the deceased|
|| Eternity, usually shown with its tail in its mouth|
| Soul effigy
|| The immortal soul|
| Torch on its side or inverted
|| Life extinguished|
| Torch, upright
| Tree stump
|| Life cut short; Woodmen of the World member|
|| Death of the flesh|
| Urn with flames issuing from it
|| New life|
| Urn, empty and draped
|| Mourning & earthly sorrow|
| Winged death head
|| Mortal remains of the deceased |
It is essential that the churchyard plan also be consulted as familial proximity continued in the grave. Family History Societies and local archives are the best places to start a search for the MIs if they are not readily available online or in microform; they are listed under CEMETERIES at the various jurisdictional levels of the FHLC. The Society of Genealogists in London has an excellent collection of MIs of Britain and overseas, but they only have an old listing of half of them currently in print (Collins & Morton). Watts & Watts describe what is supposed to happen when a burial ground is cleared – there should be a copy of the MIsdeposited at the PRO.
Not all memorials are associated with religious edifices; secular ones include war memorial and civic'cenotaphs, park benches, sundials, trees, rocks, funeral visitors’ books, monuments to civilian services'such as police, lifeboatmen or firemen, and dedicatory naming of libraries, schools or sports arenas,benefactor plaques in or on secular buildings. Cyber memorials and cyber funeral broadcasting started in the 1990s thus our descendants will have even more sources to consult (Gilchrist).
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.
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