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

F is for the Fifteen Mile, Fromelles and Fleurbaix

I am participating in the A to Z 2012 blog challenge throughout April. My theme is a genealogical travelogue or a travel genealogue (I’m not sure which).

F is for the Fifteen Mile (Queensland)

The Fifteen Mile in Queensland would be unknown to most people except locals. Part way up the road between Murphys Creek and the Crows Nest road, it is mostly scrubby bush with little apparent activity. You can get a sense of its geography by clicking here. You can see that in amongst the trees and scrub, there is a cleared semi-valley and a smattering of buildings. This inconspicuous spot is where my 2xgreat grandparents Kunkel selected their land in 1874, paying it off over five years until the total £19/5/- was reached[i]. They had very nearly lost out on the land in a bureaucratic glitch when George Kunkel filed his claim in the Ipswich Lands office while Mr Pechey filed his in Toowoomba. By the time their land purchase was finalised in 1879, they had ringbarked 154 acres, cleared two acres and cultivated it with maize, stocked the land with cattle branded GK9, and a four room house had been built and was occupied by the “selector’s wife and family” while George himself was earning cash on the railways.

The old road down to the Kunkel property at the Fifteen Mile c1988 © P Cass 2010

Early land maps[ii] of the area from the Queensland State Archives, revealed the settlers who lived in the area. I was struck by the correlation of the names with some of those I knew had emigrated from Dorfprozelten. Further research proved this to be a small settlement of former Dorfprozelten people and their descendants. I doubt it was a deliberate ploy to settle together, rather that the land became available when they were eligible and they had saved some money. It was also not a well known area, but more likely to be known to those who had worked on the railway line through Murphys Creek.

George Kunkel had been clever in his selection of land because the creek ran below his property (you can see it if you enlarge the map – a snake like curve marks his boundary) but stepped down from his buildings. This gave him natural irrigation for his fruit orchards and grape vines. In recent decades the creek had dried up in the drought and bush fires were a very real hazard. However the drastic January 2011 floods affected the Fifteen Mile in a way I hadn’t fully understood until we drove through in July last year. I couldn’t believe my eyes to see trees up in trees and debris scattered high up the creek banks.

The old Horrocks property at the Fifteen Mile is now semi-derelict. Photo taken 1988 © P Cass

This small community gathered with those close by to play tennis and hold dances in the Horrocks’s barn, and shared their excess produce[iii]. Few people live in the area now and the names of old are gone: Horrocks, McLean, Stack, Jerrard, Zoller, Bodmann, Ganzer, Kunkel.

F is for Fromelles and Fleurbaix (France)

Rue Petillon cemetery, Fleurbaix.

Last year on the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles I wrote about my grandfather’s cousin, James Augustus Gavin. James was also the grandson of Denis and Ellen Gavin who you’ve met in the “D is for…” post ( I think they’re following me at present). Fromelles is also a pivotal battle for my husband’s great uncle. Despite participating in Gallipoli, it was the Battle of Fromelles which destabilised him with the shock of the huge losses of his men. I won’t go into more detail here but if you have time, please read a little more about this fierce battle in which 5533 Australian soldiers lost their lives or were wounded or missing.

The muddy fields of Flanders 1992. © P Cass

In recent years DNA sampling has been used to identify Australian Diggers (soldiers) buried in mass graves after the Battle of Fromelles…an amazing and sobering use of modern technology to bring closure to families, and allow these soldiers to be laid to rest under a named gravestone, no longer missing.

Our James Gavin was fortunate in a sense (if you can say that) in as much as he died early in the battle, perhaps even before it officially commenced. Consequently he was laid to rest in a known grave in the Rue Petillon cemetery at Fleurbaix (about 5kms from Amentieres). In November 1992, my husband and I made a pilgrimage to see his grave, and that of another of my grandfather’s cousins (James Paterson) at Villers Brettoneux.

Rue Petillon Cemetery, Fleurbaix, amidst the farm lands of Flanders. © P Cass 1992.

The cemetery at Fleurbaix is so peaceful, set amidst French farm land. As we parked the car, a local farmer gave us a nod of acknowledgement…they take their debt of loyalty quite seriously, it seems to me.  All was tranquil with birds singing and the distant sound of farm machinery. Farm buildings lie across the road and beside the cemetery. If you must die at war, then surely this is a place where you can truly lie at peace.

Across the road, the agricultural fields gave a clue of just how difficult it would have been to fight in those conditions at any time, let alone as winter approached. The deep plough furrows showed just how clay-y and sludgey the soil was as it took on water. I couldn’t begin to truly imagine what it would be like to try to advance the German front line in those conditions.

We were pleased to be able to pay our respects to a distant family member, and indirectly to my husband’s relative, Lt Col WEH Cass. Since 1992 I’ve learned a lot about Fromelles, a battle that had long been overshadowed by Gallipoli. If I was to do a battle field tour, it would be to the Western Front, I think, rather than Gallipoli, and definitely not on Armistice Day or Anzac Day so I can have time and peace to reflect on all that happened.


[i] Queensland State Archives PRV9882-1-740 (LAN/AG739) Deed of grant.

[ii] QSA Map Parish of Murphy, County of Cavendish, A3/18 1932.

[iii] Oral history from Anne Kunkel, granddaughter of George and Mary Kunkel.

Battle of Fromelles: In Memoriam L/Cpl James Augustus Gavin KIA

Last night most of us slept peacefully in our beds, but ninety-five years ago a fierce and bloody battle was raging in France. That night Australia suffered a truly terrible loss of its young men akin to that at Gallipoli. Among the Australians readying for action on the evening of 19 July 1916 were my grandfather’s cousin, 30-year old, Lance Corporal James Gavin of the 31stBattalion and Lieutenant Colonel Walter Edmund Hutchinson Cass (54th Battalion), my husband’s grandfather’s brother (ie his great-uncle). Before the night was over James Augustus Gavin would be dead and Walter Cass would be emotionally damaged by all he’d seen, despite being a professional soldier and survivor of Gallipoli.

Capt Dexter (left) and Lt Col WEH Cass (right) at Gallipoli. Photo J02530 from Australian War Memorial no longer in copyright. Walter Cass looks remarkably like my brother-in-law in this photo (or vice versa).

This battle on 19th/20th July 1916 became known as the Battle of Fromelles. This quote from HR Williams of the 56th Battalion is indicative of this battle’s ferocity in which 5533 men were killed, wounded or missing:

“Men who had fought on Gallipoli from the Landing to the Evacuation, admitted freely that Fromelles was the severest test they had seen.”[i]

James Augustus Gavin was 29 years and 3 months and a stockman when he enlisted on 9 July 1915. He was 5 feet 11 inches with a dark complexion, gray eyes and dark hair. He was the son of James Gavin and Mary Elizabeth Drift and was born at Jondaryan on the Darling Downs on 20 March 1886. Five of their sons, including James, joined up and served in World War I, along with four of the boys’ cousins from the Kunkel family. Four of the younger cousins (Stephen & Patrick Gavin and John & Ken Kunkel) travelled together to Europe on the same ship the Port Sydney in 1917. This family seemed to have good networks with the newspapers and snippets would regularly appear in The Toowoomba Chronicle or the Darling Downs Gazette.

Enlistment photo of Photograph of James Gavin in The Queenslander of 2 October 1915, page 24.

Disembarking in Marseilles only a month earlier, Fromelles was to be James’s first and last battle: his service record lists him as “Killed in action” in the field, France. His family was perhaps fortunate that his body was recovered unlike many in massed graves whose names are only now being identified through DNA. James Gavin was buried in the Rue Petillon cemetery by Rev James Green, a Methodist chaplain attached to the 14th Brigade (of which Cass was part). Although coming from a staunchly Catholic family it’s likely his parents would have been grateful that his interment was prayerful and blessed.

Captain Green referred to the Battle of Fleurbaix (his name) saying it “will probably be found to be the most expensive battle ever fought by the AIF and the most desperate”. He describes the 20th July as follows: “our bearers at the risk of their lives, were bringing in our men…we had a sad day of helping the wounded and burying the dead”. It seems likely that James Gavin’s body was among those recovered and interred that day.[iii]

Trove has again revealed the news in The Brisbane Courier 12 August 1916, page 7: CROW’S NEST, August 11. Cablegrams have been received through the Defence Department stating that Private Eddy Richardson, of Glenaven, was killed in France on July 6, and Private James Gavin, of Pechey, near Crow’s Nest, was also killed. Both lads were well known and most popular in the district. The late Private Gavin was one of three brothers who enlisted.

 The local newspaper published this telegram under “obituary”: Died Flanders: On 19 July No 482, Lance Corporal J Gavin, 31st Battalion. Please break news through Roman Catholic clergyman to Mr J Gavin at Pechey and convey deepest sympathy King, Queen and Commonwealth Government on loss the relatives and army have sustained”. Major Darcy.[iv]

After the war, families were asked to nominate what they wanted on their son’s gravestone. James Gavin senior’s initial nomination was[v]:

L/Cpl James Gavin's gravestone in Rue Petillon cemetery: the family's inscription can be read.

A sorrowing people cried aloud

That they were of their hero proud

He helped to build his country’s name

And died in bringing her to fame.

As this exceeded the army’s maximum letters, the family then nominated:

Though nothing can the loss replace

A dear one taken from our side

Rest in peace.

Even this exceeded the army’s limit so “rest in peace” was removed and the final inscription resolved.

The location of James Gavin's grave in Rue Petillon cemetery November 1992.

In November 1992 my husband and I made a pilgrimage to see the graves of the two family members killed on the Western Front: James Gavin at Fleurbaix and James Paterson remembered on the  Villers Brettoneux memorial. James Gavin’s grave is situated in the Rue Petillon cemetery (formerly called Eaton Hall cemetery) amidst tranquil rural French farms. A farmer passing by nodded as we looked through the cemetery, perhaps an informal acknowledgement of the Australian contribution. Although the location is now so peaceful, the glutinous dirt in the adjacent fields provided an insight into the horrendous conditions the soldiers fought through in many battles. I don’t know whether any of his direct family have had the opportunity to visit his grave but it was a privilege for us to remember him in this way.

James had left his meagre possessions to his sister in a basic army will. When returned to Australia via the Beltana in 1917, his belongings were his identity disc, wallet, photo, metal wrist watch and strap, and a religious book. His mother seemed to be under the impression it had been sent to her as she mentions “a mother is always anxious to fit (?) any little token to remind them of the lost one”. Similarly the family had to follow up the medals which had been issued to James posthumously: the Victory Medal, the 1914-15 Star and the British War medal.

James and his brothers are remembered on the Crows Nest memorial in Queensland. Like many other World War I soldiers from Queensland, his photo was included among those in The Queenslander newspaper (John Oxley library now has an index of these but I don’t believe it’s online).

For many years the Battle of Fromelles was comparatively unknown by the Australian public, perhaps seen as a defeat because of the necessary withdrawal, however over the past twenty or so years I’ve seen it gain a higher profile. Now that DNA is being used to identify the bodies of Australian soldiers in massed graves and they are being laid to rest, it is gaining its rightful place in Australia’s ANZAC history. Anyone with an interest in this battle will gain many insights from Corfield’s book Don’t forget me, cobber with its warts and all analysis.

I haven’t done much on this family for a while and have only just discovered a reference to these brothers on the archived Australian Light Horse forum. Posted by Louise Gavin it says “I have photos of George, James -also of the 5th light horse on the move in Egypt, captured turkish gun and a few more. I also have a print (60 x 40 cm) my

In Memoriam: Crows Nest Memorial to those who gave their lives in World War I.

great uncle George brought back in 1919 of the Shellal Mosaic. I have a War Relatives medal as displayed on the AWM website of the WW1 badge and four bars for the five brothers also- presented to my great grandmother on the Prince of Wales visit to Toowoomba in 1920.” Louise if you’re out there please get in touch, I’d love to make contact and hear more from your side of the family. I have a large group photo which I suspect includes Gavin family members but I can’t identify them though my grandfather, Denis Kunkel, is one of the people in the image.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again,
They sit no more at familiar tables of home,
They have no lot in our labour of the daytime,
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires and hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the night.

As the stars shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are stary in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

                                             Laurence Binyon

Quoted on http://www.lighthorse.org.au/


[i]From his book, The Gallant Company 1933, referenced in Don’t Forget Me Cobber, page 127.

[ii] Australian War Memorial, War Diary 31st Battalion, 8th Brigade, Appendix D, page 9.

[iii] R S Corfield, Don’t forget me Cobber: the Battle of Fromelles 19/20 July 1916: An Inquiry, page 361.

[iv] Darling Downs Gazette 15 August 1916, page 4, column 6.