Genealogist Cat Whiteaway offers some grave advice

Thursday 29 March 2012, 11:20

Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway

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There can be fewer more tranquil places to visit on a warm spring day than a graveyard. Too much of my time researching is spent indoors hunched in front of a computer and so whenever the opportunity arises I escape and head for the peace and quiet of a local churchyard where I can get lost in time among the bees and butterflies.

Memorials made from stone are of particular interest to geologists and environmental scientists but obviously also to family historians.

By starting with the inscription on the gravestone there are a vast number of resources that can be accessed for further information about the person who lies beneath the memorial.

Death certificates

The date of death on the gravestone can be confirmed by purchasing the death certificate at a cost of £9.25 from the local register office or via www.gro.gov.uk. This document will confirm cause of death and age, but more importantly it will also provide the last address of the deceased, an informant (usually a close blood relative) and occupation.

Once date of death has been established the burial registers can be checked to see whether there are other persons buried in the same grave (who may not be mentioned on the gravestone).

Local newspaper archives

Archives of the local newspapers can be also be searched in the library to obtain copies of obituaries and these often provide a whole outline of the person's life, or at the very least a funeral notice will have been posted which lists family members.

Probate indexes

By searching the probate indexes held at the respective probate registry it is simple to determine whether the deceased left a will, which can be ordered at a cost of £6. Wills provide a wealth of information relating to the deceased's family, sometimes including illegitimate children and details of any property owned. Once the basic details of the deceased are gathered then the family tree can be built using the census returns, indexes of birth, death and marriages and electoral registers.

Gallantry awards and honours

It is also possible to check for gallantry awards and honours received following military or civilian acts. Other military records can be researched at The National Archives in Kew (www.tna.gov.uk) and if located these can provide further details of their next-of-kin and add extra details, such as vaccinations, tattoos, and information about their experiences during training.

Criminal records

If the deceased was linked to a crime in any way then an examination of the coroners' records, court assizes and websites such as www.oldbaileyonline.co.uk will provide all the intimate details that will help to ensure that the story is complete and the programme a success.

All this from one just headstone!

When I was researching for the BBC One Wales programme 'Dead Interesting People' several years ago, I spent some time in churchyards all over Wales and there are several which stick in my mind even though eventually their stories were rejected for being too sad.

Louisa Maud Evans

In Cathays cemetery in Cardiff there is a memorial to Louisa Maud Evans, which forms part of their heritage trail (another clever idea to attract more people).

Louisa Maude Evans

Louisa Maude Evans

Louisa was a young domestic servant with Hancock's circus who fell to her death during a freak ballooning accident during the Cardiff Exhibition of 1896. The inscription on the memorial describes the accident and offers a fitting epitaph for a young life tragically lost.

Eye-catching inscriptions

When I was at St Mary's Church in Mold there is an inscription which caught my eye, stopping me in my tracks and made me think about about this young man's incredible journey through life.

"In memory of Isaac Hughes formerly of Pwllmelyn. He was an adventurer at the gold mines in California where by an accident he lost both his eyes. He then returned home and resided at 22 New Street Mold. He died July 15th aged 39 years"

And in the same part of the churchyard is the headstone for John Corbett.

"Here lieth the body of John Corbett who was led by his pretended friends in Stockport near Manchester to a strange and dangerous place and thrown into the deep to be no more but in his life was honest and sincere. God's word was his guide and rule who departed this life Feb 22nd 1822 aged 25 years"

Gravestone of John Corbett

The inscription above tells just part of an incredible story and one which deserves to be fully researched. I really hope that anyone researching John Corbett's family history takes time to locate his grave and his headstone and doesn't simply rely on the indexes of deaths available on the internet which cannot possibly tell his sad story.

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