Beyond the Internet: Week 39 Funeral directors’ registers

This is Week 39 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens and the topic is Funeral Directors’ Registers.

While it’s fairly automatic for us as genealogists to look for monumental inscriptions, or even just gravestones, funeral directors’ records are a less used resource. My suspicion is that this is because they’re less readily found online.

Why bother with funeral directors’ registers?

There are a few very good reasons:

  1. They are often available well beyond the timeframe of registered death indices. This means you can find out when someone died in the more recent past. You also don’t have to be a next-of-kin to be able to access the information.
  2. You can obtain information on the person’s death without the expense of buying the certificate if it’s not an immediate family member. It may also tell you additional details that are not recorded on the death certificate eg time of death (Scottish records always include this).
  3. They can, and often do, include cause of death as well as some biographical details for the deceased. They can also include surprising details for family members. For example I’ve found complete lists of adult children (including married daughters), their residence, ages and sometimes occupation. It may also provide clues of marriages beyond those available via indexes.
  4. You can get some sense of your family’s wealth, or lack of it, from the type of funeral they had, the cost of the coffin, hearses etc.
  5. You may learn of religious matters eg the recording of “rosary beads and crucifix in hands” or a Requiem Mass.
  6. They may mention lodge affiliations or whether a flag was on the coffin for an ex-serviceman.
  7. In rare cases it may be the only record available of the death or burial.

Where can I find these records?

Much will depend on how long the business has been in operation, whether it still exists, and how flexible they are about their records.

If you’re not sure, you could try post office directories and phone books to see if you can locate current contact information you might want to phone or email the company to see where they archive their records. Of course despite our obsessive need to know what happened to our distant relative, the funeral directors are more likely to have pressing current-day issues to deal with, so patience is a virtue to be practiced.

The funeral notices for Peter McCorkindale reveals the name of the funeral director, but also Peter’s personal affiliations. Image from The Brisbane Courier Mail 18 July 1945, via Trove.

I’d also try approaching the local family history centre or reference library in the town where the business operated/operates. I know that the Genealogical Society of Queensland has several of the big-name Brisbane undertakers’ records  on microfilm and indexed on microfiche.  I wonder how often they’re used these days or if they languish unattended on the shelf.  Your own society may have the indexes, at least, so you would know whether the original will hold what you’re looking for. I’ve found heaps of information from these and can heartily recommend them.

If the undertaker is from your home town, then you may have the added advantage of knowing that certain funeral directors were more likely to be chosen by particular religions eg KM Smith was the dominant funeral business for Catholic Brisbaneites. But don’t get wedded to which company they may have used, as they’re likely to upset the apple cart (as you’ll see from the funeral notice here, for my Presbyterian relations).

A register of archives for your state or county may also reveal archival holdings for funeral businesses.

How do you know which funeral directors’ registers to search?

I tend to the policy of checking them all –the scattergun approach – in the absence of strong information.

If you already have the death or funeral notice from the newspaper it will be very clear which funeral director buried your relative. Alternatively it may appear on other documentation or on the death notice (in Australia though not elsewhere in my experience).

The burial registers we looked at last week may also reveal this information. It does all tend to become a bit chicken-and-egg as to which records to search first, but it’s a case of turning over every possible stone in your quest.

Where to from here?

There are many times I’ve wished for funeral directors’ registers and they’ve been unavailable but on other occasions they’ve been a gold mine of information. It now occurs to me that there’s one stone I’ve left unturned so I need to take my own advice and follow it up.

You might wish to read this story via Genealogy’s Star, which highlights how pivotal these records were for one family, and revealed untold depths of sadness.

Have you had any grand successes using funeral directors’ registers?

NEXT WEEK:  we take a turn through migration records.

Family History Alphabet: U is unique

My theme for the Family History through the Alphabet is the Attributes we need as family historians: the skills, experience and talents we need to bring to our research. We’re on the slippery slope near the alphabet’s end as we look at the U attributes.

Our family tree is unique to each of us and our siblings.

U is UNIQUE: It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that while our families have universal traits, each one is unique. We also talk about our “family tree” as if it’s generic to many people whereas in fact, each individual shares a particular family ancestry only with their siblings, as unique as a snowflake. Branches of their ancestry may be shared with many others but our “tree” is unique.

U is for UNDERSTANDING: Closely related to empathy when we try to understand our families’ responses and behaviours and not judge them by 21st century values and mores.

It’s all about understanding…

Understanding our families within their time frame and the place they lived is important if we’re to reach a balanced perspective on their lives.

U is for UNIVERSAL in two senses: Our ancestors were very human and their frailties and foibles are universal to human-kind. We’re universal also in our concern for their experiences and universal in our desire as family historians to know more about them.

 U is for UBIQUITOUS:  The traces of our families are ubiquitous from graveyards to churches to archives. It follows as night follows day that we too are ubiquitous as we hunt down those much desired clues and stories.

U is for UNIFORM: As we work through our research we try to maintain a consistent approach in the details and rigour we apply to our search, as well as how we report on family stories.

What have irises got to do with family history? They’re rhizomes.

U is not always UNIFORM:  We talk about our families and family trees as if they follow a neat family structure universally uniform across each family. In fact most families have tree anomalies: children adopted out or in; same sex relationships known or hinted at; divorces; deceased spouses (often more than one); and melded families.

In short our families can be messy and so writing their story can be challenging.

If you haven’t read the post, R is for Rhizome, by guest blogger Dr Chad Habel, on the Seeking Susan~Meeting Marie~Finding Family blog, can I recommend you pop over and have a look. Chad’s proposal that a rhizome rather than a tree is a more apt descriptor for our messy families. I certainly like the tree image better, but the rhizome concept works better. On the other hand, a field of irises or heliconias….

What U attributes do you think we need as family historians?

Images from Microsoft Clipart.

Trove Tuesday: The hazards of well-sinking

TOOWOOMBA. (1866, July 7). The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), p. 8. Retrieved September 25, 2012, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article20308490

I’d venture that well-sinking isn’t something most of us think too much about these days. In the pioneering days ensuring that your farm had sufficient water was critical to survival.  With no piped water for humans or stock, buying a block near running water like a creek (but not too close because of floods), was often a key consideration. Alternatively you might have to build a dam or a well.  Trove stories reveal that accidents to well-sinkers were frequent and often fatal.

Thanks to the indexes of the Toowoomba and Darling Downs Family History Society many years ago I found the story of the death of young Peter Conroy which I mentioned recently in my MI post. Of course these days it’s easier to find the same story via Trove. The newspapers in those days tended to graphic prose with all the gory details so I read how Peter’s brains were hanging out and his bones broken when the jumper they were using faulted.

Stephen Gavin was able to get his leg into the bucket so that he could be pulled up to the surface when help arrived. Peter died of his injuries but Stephen survived though his health was affected.

I suspect that Stephen Gavin was Peter’s relation, possibly his cousin, nephew or brother-in-law. My working hypothesis is that Peter is the brother or nephew of Annie Gavin nee Conroy, with whom he’s buried.[i]

Importantly, the newspaper story, and a nearly illegible inscription on the grave shared with the Gavin family, are the only traces of his death. Peter’s burial does not appear in the Drayton cemetery burial registers which commence later than his death, nor can I find his death indexed in the Qld BDMs. Without the work of TDDFHS, and later Trove, this man’s life in Australia would have gone completely unremarked.

Peter Conroy is not the only man to lose his life in this way and a quick search of Trove brings up other fatalities from well-sinking.

CORONER’S INQUEST. (1859, February 28). Bendigo Advertiser (Vic. : 1855 – 1918), p. 3. Retrieved September 25, 2012, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article87987337


[i] I told the story of this gravestone in the TDDFHS publication Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery, Our Backyard, 2009, page 85.

Thoughts on The Last Blue Sea

In the midst of the jungle men pray for strength. MASS BEFORE BATTLE ON SALAMAUA TRAIL. (1943, August 16). The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), p. 3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42021915

Lately my mind has been turning to Papua New Guinea again as we plan an upcoming trip back to Alotau after a mere 41 years. As it does in these circumstances, one thought leads to another and before long I’m off on a tangent.

No surprise then that I picked up my copy of The Last Blue Sea the other night to re-read it. Originally published in 1959 the book won the inaugural Dame Mary Gilmore Award. My guess is that it would be the best part of forty years since I last read it, having first encountered the book in high school.

News of the day: the battles near Salamaua. 11 ZEROS SHOT DOWN. (1943, August 4). The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), p. 4.  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48762488

In theory the novel is entirely fictitious except for the presence of renowned war photographer Damien Parer.  Whatever the truth of the specifics, there’s little doubt that the story builds on personal experience and a deep knowledge of World War II in New Guinea circa 1943 (post-Kokoda). It has an unusual writing style which ultimately seemed very effective but I confess I occasionally got confused as to which soldier was which, despite the list of key characters in the beginning.

This is one book in which the place (the jungle near Salamaua in what was then New Guinea) is very much a major character, shaping the individual soldier’s experience and responses. Having the tiniest understanding of just how impenetrable the jungles of PNG can be, I am in awe of their survival and persistence.

My take-away thoughts from this book were:

  • The all-encompassing power of the jungle, the impact of the leaves and the enemy hidden within
  • The sheer physical and mental brutality of survival, let alone fighting, in such conditions
  • The impact of poor leadership and equally the commitment of the men to leaders in whom they believed
  • The men’s tendency to hide the truth of the horrors they saw from their loved ones at home
  • The courage of the men was very low-key and it evoked a memory of a family friend who fought as a sniper near Kokoda: you’d have thought it was a doddle from the way he spoke.
  • The platoon leader calling his men’s lives “the crown jewels of Australia”: the loss of these men impacted Australia for decades afterwards
  • The sheer horror of men who, severely injured, had to make their own way out of the jungle over precipitous mountain ranges, often alone because there was no other option.
  • I was intrigued by references to the militia units at Bargara near Bundaberg at the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea. So far I haven’t tracked down the truth or otherwise of that element.

I found this novel to be very powerful and will be rereading it again soon, to absorb the finer points I missed in my rush to follow the story.

The nom-de-plume of the author was David Forrest and in fact I never knew it wasn’t the author’s real name. Turning to Google I found that David Forrest was the aka for Dr David Denholm. As soon as I read that, bells rang in my head. Sure enough he is the author of a BA (Hons) dissertation at The University of Queensland, on the Coming of the Germans to the Darling Downs 1852-1861, which I’ve referenced in my Dorfprozelten research. I was quite tickled to discover this link.

As I read the book the words of an Australian poet echoed in my mind. David Campbell’s poem Men in Green carries some of the same resonances. This is a short extract but please do have a look at the full poem from this link:

Their eyes were bright, their looks were dull,

Their skin had turned to clay

Nature had met them in the night

And stalked them in the day.

And I think still of men in green

On the Soputa track

With fifteen spitting tommy-guns

To keep a jungle back.

Beyond the Internet: Week 38 Burial Registers

Beyond the Internet

This is Week 38 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens and the topic is Burial Registers. This forms part of the cheerily named “Death” theme in the series and next week’s post on funeral directors’ registers will be the finale of this section.

Cemeteries offer more opportunities for research than just their gravestones and monumental inscriptions. Each cemetery should have (or would once have had!) some form of burial register documenting who has been interred in the cemetery. Of course the further back in time we go the greater the risk that the registers may not have survived. It’s always worth checking when the extant records commence.

Burial registers MAY provide you with information on cause of death, place of birth and death and next of kin – much depends on the particular cemetery. However it’s vitally important to cross-check sources and weigh up their relative accuracy.

WHERE DID THEY DIE? WERE THEY BURIED HERE?

Registers can also reveal unexpected events such as the reinterment of someone who died elsewhere and was initially buried closer to that place before being transported back to a “home” cemetery.

One instance in my Gavin family was the death of Mary Gavin in a car accident near Cooktown in August 1930. Initially interred in North Queensland, her body was repatriated to Toowoomba nine months later. Her MI records Mary’s death in 1930 (correct) while the burial register lists her death in 1931 just days before her reinterment (incorrect). The MI also lists her husband as well as son James who was killed at Fromelles: one buried with her, the other lying at rest in the Rue Petillon cemetery near Fleurbaix.

Another even more improbable anomaly came to light through a story told to me by an elderly relative. She remembered attending a “cousin’s” funeral when it was unseasonally hot. It took some sleuthing but eventually I figured out that the funeral was for Jack Bishop. So what’s odd about that you might well say? Only the fact that Jack died in England, and was actually buried in the Toowoomba cemetery in rural Queensland! Jack Bishop was a pioneer dirt-bike racer and had fallen ill while racing overseas. His mates in Australia had collected the money to pay for his ashes to be brought back to Australia. Who would expect something like that in the 1930s? There’s quite a story in this to which I’ll return another day.

FINDING REGISTERS

Online (yes sometimes we do hark back to the internet)

Increasingly some cemeteries are putting their registers online to search: an absolute blessing for all of us far-away genies. I’ve been very lucky that the Drayton and Toowoomba cemetery were at the forefront of this trend and living so far away this has been amazingly helpful. They’ve now taken it one step further and included images of the gravestone as well as a map of the grave location. You can see an example here with Jack (Frederick John) Bishop’s entry here. Well done Toowoomba!

Visiting/Contacting the cemetery

If your cemetery-of-interest isn’t online then it will be worth your while to get in touch to see what additional information they may have on the burial and death. It’s always worth checking who is buried in the same plot as it may turn up unexpected relationships. The other possibility is that what you’ve come across is essentially a pauper’s grave, often indicated by a strange assortment of burials in the one plot: the sexton is likely to know so ask him if the names mean nothing at all to you.

If the cemetery is one which doesn’t have a sexton, you can try the local council office, the local heritage library or the local family history society to find out if they are the repository of the burial records. (I’ve found registers in all these places). These may be the originals (always best), microfilms of the originals, or indexed copies. All are worth exploring even though indexes will obviously need following up. Of course in the pre-internet era when death indexes were restricted and there were no other options the services provided by family history indexes were invaluable.

A critical point to remember is that while the official death registrations may be limited beyond a certain date, the burial record may open the door for further investigation of death notices and relatives, especially women whose names have changed with marriage.

Thrifty tip: the death information obtained from the burial registers may mean you don’t need to obtain certificates for peripheral relations (some of whose certificates you may not be able to purchase for privacy reasons, or the fact that the death wasn’t all that long ago).

FamilySearch Microfilms

Old and new technology: image from wikipedia commons.

Over the decades I’ve used the LDS microfilms of burials to great advantage in my family history searches. They’ve enabled me to confirm otherwise tentative links, unravel which person is which, and generally learn more about my ancestors.

Tip: Not all registers have been added to the family search site or the old IGI. You should compare what’s been indexed online with what’s available on the film. Either way, you’ll get far more information from the films. They let you place your ancestors within the events and context of their parish as well as providing you with clarifying details.

Tip: search the catalogue by place and parish to find the record you’re looking for.  If you haven’t used these microfilms before I encourage you to see if they’re available for your parish of interest and order one in for the thrifty amount of $AU7.75. This is the link you need to order in your film to the nearest LDS or approved family history library.

Request: it would be so nice if FamilySearch made the link to the microfilm ordering just a tad more obvious (or am I the only one who has to google to find it?)

Other blogs

James Tanner from the Genealogy’s Star blog has written several posts about cemeteries in the US over the past months. If you haven’t seen why not visit James’s site and have a look.  There are a couple of examples here and here.

What’s your experience been with burial registers? Have you made any exciting or unusual discoveries through using them?

Next week: Funeral directors’ records

Family History Alphabet: Tantalising T

My theme for the Family History through the Alphabet is the Attributes we need as family historians: the skills, experience and talents we need to bring to our research. We’re tearing towards the alphabet’s end. Today we focus on the tantalising letter T.

T is for TENACIOUS: You’ll need to be persistent to track down all the clues you can about your ancestral families.

T is for TEARS:  You’re bound to shed your share of these in the course of this adventure. You’ll read about the loss of infant children, the early death of spouses, death in childbirth, the loss of limbs and life, the loss of farms and property.  With each tear your respect for your ancestors will grow.

There’ll be other tears too as you learn of photos or precious documents that have been lost in fires, cyclones or even wilfully destroyed because….why…the reasons never seem good enough to me.

T is for TEACHING: Connected to last week’s sharing attribute, this is an opportunity to share your skills with your fellow genies, via blogs, classes, presentations or informal conversation. You may know more about technology and be able to swap your expertise with more experienced genies, or vice versa.

T is for TALKING:  You’ll do a good bit of this too, as you “bash the ears” of anyone willing, or even semi-willing, to learn about your family history. Not to mention those relatives who might be able to tell you tales of the family and provide clues or photographs. The complementary skill is, of course, listening, or it will all be for naught.

T is for TERRIFIED: You may be braver than me, but I find it quite terrifying to cold-call people who may/may not be relatives to gain more information. 99% of the time I’ve found that while they may be initially suspicious (we’re all humbugged by too many marketing calls), they’ll mostly be happy to help, and some will be downright keen. Of course you may also connect with the frosty ex-spouse of who you’re searching for, but they’re the hazards.

T is for THRIFTY: Definitely a useful attribute for family historians because despite popular belief it’s not all free, and it’s not all on the internet. Nor should we expect people to do research for us without some recompense.  Perhaps I should be following the Thrifty Thursday prompts so I can lift my game against this attribute.

T is for NOT thieving: Sounds a bit harsh so let’s call it pinching, borrowing, appropriating, whatever. A rose by any other name….it’s poor research to take someone else’s work without acknowledgement, no matter whether it’s specifically covered by copyright legislation.

T is for THRILLED: You know, those happy dance moments when you find that tiny little snippet of information about an ancestor. It doesn’t have to be a monumental discovery, we’re happy with whatever the research fates send us, remembering the harder we work, the luckier we’ll get.

T is for THANKFUL: Most especially thankful for all those who came before us and who have made us who we are.  Thankful that they persevered through famine, fire, drought, flood and challenging migrations so their families could have a better life.

Thankful also for the support and encouragement that we gain from our peers and the learning opportunities offered to us by more experienced researchers. We’re just so fortunate.

Do you have any other T attributes to add to our list? Which do you think is most important to you as a researcher?

Images from Microsoft Office Clipart

Adding Translation Options

WordPress.com blogs are not able to add plug-ins such as Google Translate. However all is not lost.

Thanks to Time Thief on One Cool Site I have been able to offer two buttons/links on my sidebar which will enable non-English speakers to read this blog in the language of their choice. Time Thief is a great help on all things related to WordPress blogs especially the more generic wordpress.com ones. It’s been an interesting learning experience.

After a certain amount of fiddling and tweaking I’ve managed to have two (well really three) options:

  1.  I now have an additional page on my site called “Translate this blog”. This takes people straight to the “conversion” page.
  2. I have a “TRANSLATE THIS BLOG” link on the top of my sidebar which also takes you to this conversion page.
  3. I have a second type of translation button, courtesy of Free Web Site Translation. This is a little more cumbersome as readers will have to scroll down to find the options of which language to choose.

Why did I choose to do this?  My interest in emigrants from Dorfprozelten, Bavaria in Germany was my main motivation I admit, but hopefully it will also make the blog open to others whose English is limited.

Genre Favourites Blogfest

The other day I read about the Genre Favourites (and Guilty Pleasures) Blogfest on the L’Aussie Writer Blog. It sounded like a bit of fun so I thought, why not join in? So here are my responses.

MOVIES

One of my favourite movies ever is Out of Africa: the costuming, the scenery, the interaction with the Africans. The landscape is so theatrical and a character in the story. I would love to soar above the landscape in a hot air balloon, perhaps the closest to what they saw in the old bi-plane. A dream for 2013.

Hot air balloons over the Masai Mara, Kenya. Image Wikipedia commons.

For me it’s not the love interest that is the tear-jerker element in Out of Africa. In the Ladies’ Room afterwards, all the women were crying over Robert Redford’s death and talking about it. I was crying for the servant, who loyally and futilely waited for her to send for him. It’s always seemed to me like a betrayal of sorts.

My guilty pleasure is rom-coms among which You’ve Got Mail stands out. At the time I harboured a secret ambition to own a bookstore: the movie convinced me that wasn’t such a great idea, and given the virtual world of bookshops these days that was probably no bad thing. Dream bombed!

BOOKS

Setting aside my devotion to historical books (not fiction), I’m a big crime novel reader, a habit that goes way back into childhood with the Trixie Belden books.

I suffer from author-addiction: devouring each book my favourite authors publish and  waiting anxiously for their next story. Don’t you hate it when a favourite author is inconsiderate enough to die on you leaving you with no hope of further entertainment….inconvenient for them too of course!

Perhaps my favourite crime author is Michael Connelly and his Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch character. Bosch, the LA homicide detective, has such commitment and grittiness which make the stories realistic as do his human weaknesses.

My weakness for crime pours over into TV as well where there’s nothing better than a good crime series on a Friday night, especially in those weeks when work’s been a bit of a pain. Again the grittier the better and so Taggart has to be a favourite with its Glaswegian accents and attitudes.

MUSIC

Bagpipes in my blood. Celtic music (Scottish or Irish) is my fave.

It’s a toss up this one but since I have to choose I’ll go with Celtic music, and I’m a big fan of Mary Black. If you’re interested in more of my music habits you can check out the Merry Month of May Music Meme we had earlier this year.

Guilty pleasure in music is probably country music which we mostly listen to while driving long distances –it seems to fit with the locale.

Thanks to Ninja Captain Alex for inventing this blogfest.

 

Monumental inscription examples

Using a slideshow of photos to illustrate my latest post in the Beyond the internet series didn’t work all that well. I thought I’d post the images here so you can get a better look at what they offer – you never know there might just be a rellie among them.

Remember you can click on each photo to enlarge it.

Patzwald family at Cabarlah cemetery, Qld

The Patzwald family buried in Cabarlah cemetery, Queensland.

Clare Catholic Cemetery, SA

Suffer little children..to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….

John Monzel at Dutton Park cemetery, Brisbane.

John Monzel born Trier buried in Dutton Park cemetery, Brisbane, Queensland.

Adelaide Ah Kinn in Urana NSW

Adelaide Ah Kinn, born Scotland married to William Ah Kinn, either Chinese or of Chinese descent. I’m fascinated by her and would love to hear from her descendants. She lived in Urana when my 2 x great aunt also lived there. Did they know each other? Was Adelaide socially isolated?

Johannah Wall at Roma, Qld

Johannah Wall is buried in the Roma Cemetery, Queensland.

Paulina Graf at Meringandan, Qld.

Paulina Graf’s memorial is in German. She is remembered in the Meringandan cemetery on the Darling Downs, Queensland.

Michael Moylan at Dungog NSW

Michael Moylan is buried in the Dungog cemetery, NSW.

Margaret Mary Byron at Dungog, NSW

Margaret Mary Byron at Dungog cemetery, NSW

The Meagher Brothers at Dungog.

The Meagher brothers are buried together which is interesting, as in my experience the clergy are often in a separate area of the cemetery.

Thomas Dillon at Dungog.

The gravestone of Thomas Dillon at Dungog, NSW

Bridget Shanahan at Branxton RC Cemetery NSW

Bridget Shanahan was of interest to me as an immigrant of the same name came from East Co Clare.

Robert Smallshaw of Greta

Robert Smallshaw.

Beyond the Internet: Week 37 Monumental Inscriptions and Gravestones

This is Week 37 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens and the topic is Cemeteries: Monumental Inscriptions and Gravestones. This forms part of the cheerily named “Death” theme in the series. In the coming weeks we’ll talk about burial registers and funeral undertakers.

The grave of Thomas and Ellen O’Brien in the Broadford Catholic churchyard.

This topic seems almost unnecessary as most of us are aware of the importance of trying to see our ancestors’ graves.  Once upon a time this could only be done by visiting the cemetery however near or far it was. These days technology has made massive steps towards our ability to virtually see these graves even if visiting is impossible for us.

On the flip side, over the past 10 or 20 years while technology and the internet has been helping us solve this problem, those old gravestones have deteriorated to varying degrees – some to the point of illegibility.  So it’s still worth sussing out whether there are older photos around the place which may have captured the gravestone you’re looking for.

On my various travels I’ve taken photos of graves in cemeteries where I’ve visited. I don’t focus just on relatives but I also photograph stones where the monumental inscriptions are fading into oblivion or where the stones themselves are in imminent danger of falling and breaking as well as looking out for people who are buried a long way from home. My plan was to one day add these to my Flickr site, but it’s also one of the tasks I’ve barely touched. I should be following Crissouli’s lead with Irish Graves: those who lie in foreign lands.

CHIIIRPPD! OR What you can, and can’t, you find out from a gravestone. 

CAUTION:  In many cemeteries, in Australia at least, burials occurred according to religious affiliation with areas of the cemetery dedicated to the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists etc etc. However caution is required when finding an ancestor in the “wrong” burial area. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’d changed their religious affiliations – the rationale may be burial with a relative, financial reasons etc.  For example the Gavins mentioned below are buried in the Anglican section of Toowoomba cemetery even though they were definitely Catholic and buried by the RC clergyman.

HIDDEN PEOPLE: You may find a clue about the existence of someone who hasn’t made it into the records elsewhere. For example the gravestone of Mark and Anna Gavin mentioned a Peter Conroy. Searching for his death and burial records turned up no results. However the story of his death is mentioned in the newspapers and had been indexed by the Toowoomba and Darling Downs Family History Society enabling me to identify it in the pre-Trove era.[i]

The MI for Thomas and Ellen O’Brien photographed in 2003.

ILLEGIBILITY: If you find the grave and can’t read the MI, don’t despair. Check out old indexes of MIs or photographs (where available) to see if you can learn more from them: you’ll find many of these in your local family history centre or perhaps the nearest one to the town you’re searching. For example, the generous donation of photos and indexes for the Broadford cemetery in Co Clare omits my 2x great uncle, Thomas O’Brien. This is in no way due to any error of the donor, rather that the MI is now illegible. Luckily I have an earlier photograph from 1992 which I need to provide to the site.  If you can’t locate an old photos why not put a post up on one of the chat groups to see if anyone can help.

IMAGERY: It may not add to your ancestor’s biographical information, but the imagery and any wording/poetry/prayers will add insight into your family’s belief systems. There are also people who study the varying imagery used so it may be worth your while to see what you can track down.

INDEXES: Don’t forget that family history societies may have indexed the MIs in your cemetery of interest many years ago. It’s worth checking their indexes to MIs to see if they reveal more than current photos.

RELATIONSHIPS:  If you’re lucky the gravestone MI may include details of relationships between the “inhabitants” of the grave. Alternative proximate graves and MIs might reveal these relationships.

In the churchyard at Moorgate in Nottinghamshire we unexpectedly found my husband’s great grandmother buried with her sisters and mother in two adjoining graves, with coffin-shaped gravestones including comprehensive family details. Happy dances in the falling snow!

My relative James Gavin is similarly remembered on his parents’ MI.

PLACES: It’s not unusual to find an MI mentioning the person’s current place or where they died, and it’s also not uncommon to find reference to a county where they were born overseas. Those of us who are really lucky may find it mentions the village, parish or townland where they came from. This can be gold as it may be the only place where you find this information depending on who completed the death certificate.

The gravestones of Sarah Cass, her mother and three sisters in Moorgate.

PROXIMITY: It has surprised me how often family members are buried near each other in the cemetery. We tend to expect husbands and wives to be buried together but that’s not always the case: they may have been buried with a second spouse or a child, or even a different cemetery. Initially I didn’t know much about my grandfather’s eldest sister. When I found her grave, it was smack bang behind that of other family members.

DON’T ASSUME: You can’t assume that all those named on the stone are actually buried there: it may simply be a memorial to one or more of them (perhaps because they couldn’t afford a stone at the time). There are other ways of checking this: death certificates or burial registers for example, or look in newspapers for any stories about the person’s death.

So there you have it: my assessment of the benefits of monumental inscriptions, and some of the hazards. I hope you find some of it useful but if you’d like to add your discoveries or additions please do so as it will benefit us all.

I’m going to include a slideshow here to illustrate just how lucky you can be with MIs. (Actually I don’t think the slideshow was the best option here so if you’re interested in knowing more about any of these people -see captions- leave a comment request and I’ll get back to you.)

Also see further below for a list of online sources of gravestones.

Next week: Burial registers. These really complement the MI/Cemetery topic but merit a post on their own.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Some online sources for images of gravestones (there are many others)

Australian Cemeteries (this is one of my favourite grave-search sites)

Co Clare Gravestones – donated material

South East Queensland Headstone Collection: (another of my favourites).

Australian Cemeteries

Carol’s Headstone Photos: Victorian cemeteries predominantly.

Billion Graves

Memento Mori


[i] I told the story of this gravestone in the TDDFHS publication Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery, Our Backyard, 2009, page 85.