As a teenager my Mum and I spent many happy hours feverishly exploring churchyards, frequently in very cold or wet conditions. We were driven on by a determination, not just to find our ancestors’ resting place, but also the inevitable genealogical clues we knew their gravestones would contain if we could but find them; the age at death would help locate the baptism; details might be given of previously unknown family members; references might be found to where our family had actually lived – and the last would in turn give us houses to try and track down!
I can vividly remember the thrill I felt when we found the stone for John and Margaret Bowness. It was just outside the main door of the tiny church at Cartmel Fell. And after reading the stone I suddenly found myself regarding them as real people rather than just names on my family tree.
Two of their children, Barbara and James (whose baptisms I had found) had died as young adults while, although I knew that the family lived at Poolgarth in Cartmel Fell, I had no idea that they later moved away to Hood Ridding at Old Hutton some fifteen miles away, returning to be buried at Cartmel Fell several years later. This led us on a trip to Old Hutton where we found another family grave and where it turned out my great great grandmother (their daughter) had worked as a servant in her late teens.
In those days there was nothing online and our successful finds were relatively few in proportion to the number of hours we spent in churchyards! These days you can make a much more ordered and thorough search to see if your ancestors’ gravestones survive and to learn what is written on them – all without stirring out of your house. One of the things I stress in my book is the importance of using your various death records in tandem and making the most of all online databases. Today there are numerous websites offering transcriptions of monumental inscriptions and burials while some websites also offer images of gravestones. And, although I still wholeheartedly exhort you to get out and visit your ancestor’s parish and hopefully experience the thrill of finding their grave too, doing your homework before you go can save you many man hours on the ground and will give you extra time to explore the rest of the town or village too.
Family historians and antiquarians have been transcribing the information on gravestones for many years and these are often a useful short cut for locating the stones you want or finding out what was written on those that no longer survive. Many churchyard transcriptions carried out in the nineteenth century are now more precious than ever, including as they do so many stones that no longer survive. Such a transcription led me to discover vital information about my great great grandmother Elizabeth Heritage that would otherwise have been lost, while a surprising number of stones give information about causes of death and occupations and, if you actually get to see the gravestone itself, frequently the artwork is symbolic and of interest too.
A gravestone is not just a tablet upon which vital genealogical information is written however. A gravestone tells a story, whether it be the simple dates of a person unmarried and childless, or an epitaph to a loved one written by a spouse or children. Don’t forget to think about the effect your ancestor’s death would have had on any remaining family members. It’s very important to put your family history data into its ‘real life’ situation.
So next time you walk round a burial ground try to imagine the mourners for each burial clustered around each grave. If you do so the burial ground will suddenly become a very crowded place. Remember, too, that many graves will be unmarked by any stone. Then think about how the death of each person may have affected all those close family members and friends stood there before you. A death, no matter at what age, could have had repercussions for the rest of the family and sometimes serious ones. And now consider your ancestor’s grave. Who would have stood around it and how would do you think they have felt? Who did your ancestor leave to mourn and who would have been most affected? This is all food for thought and an important part of understanding your family history and getting under the skins of your ancestors.
I look at all aspects of gravestones and monumental inscriptions in Chapter 3 of the book, while in Chapter 8 I consider the repercussions of a death on the surviving family members.