UK Research Guide | Cemetery Records
Prior to the introduction of Civil Registration in 1837, Church of England burial registers are the primary source for information about deaths.
The Church of England burial registers date back to the 16th century; however, for the first two hundred years, burial registers generally only recorded the deceased’s name and date of burial. It is possible that more information was recorded if someone reached an advanced age, or if they were a member of the nobility, or that a residence was recorded to distinguish between those of the same name. Children were also sometimes referred to as “sons and daughters of” in some parish registers. Nevertheless, as people lived in small communities with limited mobility, it is often possible to identify the person buried with some certainty.
Registers began to record more details by the end of the 18th century; for example, some began listing the age at death, occupations of males, and whether a woman was a widow. Nonconformist churches often kept even more detailed registers than Church of England churches. From 1813 onwards, the Church of England began using burial registers with columns that recorded the name of the person buried, their residence, age, and their date of burial.
In the early 1800s, private cemeteries, founded mostly by nonconformists, began emerging. However, a public health initiative, the Burial Acts, was passed in 1854, which allowed the government to close church graveyards for health reasons in most urban centres which saw the opening of many new private cemeteries. The Acts also permitted municipalities to open municipal cemeteries. These allowed separate sections consecrated for the burial of members of the Church of England, Roman Catholic and Jewish faiths as well as an unconsecrated section for the burial of those of other faiths or none.
Cemetery registers kept by private and municipal cemeteries contained more information than church burial records. They maintained a register of interments, but also kept grave books to record who was buried in each grave. Since people buried in the same grave were likely related, grave books are particularly valuable sources of information.
The English call gravestones “monumental inscriptions” (or M.I.s). It can be difficult to find the location of a grave, especially if the person died in a large city. Even after civil registration of deaths, finding the place of burial is still difficult as death certificates do not indicate the place of burial. Look for a church, city, or public cemetery near the place where they lived or died. Depending on whether the cemetery is still in use, the register may be available at the cemetery office. Otherwise, try the local archives or county record office for the area you are researching. Alternatively, they may be located in the church archives of the relevant diocese, or in the parish church.
Pictured: Peat Cart, The Costume of Yorkshire (1814), George Walker (1781-1856)