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.
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).
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?)
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