Cemetery Research Resources
by Lorraine Evans - 13:00 on 06 October 2022
Upon the release of Burying the Dead, which now seems a lifetime away, I was contacted by a contributing editor for Who Do You Think You Are magazine inquiring if I would kind enough to submit a small written piece on cemetery research. In essence, they wanted me to share some of the more favourable online resources that I use on a regular basis. As many of you reading this will appreciate, cemetery research can be a daunting task at times, especially for the first time initiate. Likewise, living in remote areas, as I do, gaining access to physical library collections is often fraught with difficulties, involving journeys of many hours over hundreds of miles, usually at great expense. Therefore, I thought it may be of interest to some, especially to those of you who missed said article, to share my top research sites. Please note, these are my own personal preferences and opinions and they do have an archaeology/UK bias. The list is certainly not exhaustive, and many other related sites are also utilised when resarching a particula topic. Other countries, than the UK, will have similar organisations.
Historic Environment Records
Historic Environment Records (HERs) are an important starting point for anyone interested in the archaeology and historic environment of a defined geographical area. Previously known as Sites and Monuments Records, HERs provide an online database of historic sites and landscapes, combined with a useful digital mapping system, which is accessible to the general public. They can provide information on a wide variety of buildings and sites, from finds of prehistoric flint tools to medieval castles and Second World War pillboxes. HERs contain details on local archaeological sites and finds, historic buildings and historic landscapes and are regularly updated. This information is usually held in a database with a digital mapping system (Geographic Information System). Nearly two-thirds of HERs are available online through the Heritage Gateway, where you can cross search several national as well as local datasets on the historic environment. In England there are over 85 HERs, which are maintained and managed by local authorities as the essential core of historic environment services.
Historic Environment Scotland (HES) can provide an invaluable resource tool in the search for private burial grounds, now lost, or grave markers since disappeared. Several publications by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, ranging from 1908 to 1915, have now been digitised and are available to search and download for free via the HES website, albeit said files are somewhat hefty. Historic Environment Scotland also hosts Canmore, an online database facility, which currently has some 1.2 million catalogue entries, such as drawings and manuscripts, as well as an Image Search facility of over 333,000 images, comprising modern day surveys to photographic collections.
In Wales, Archwilio provides free online access to the historic environment records for each local authority area in Wales. This includes information on tens of thousands of historic sites; thousands of records relating to investigative work across Wales; and records of hundreds of thousands of historic place names. The core records on Archwilio are supported by additional information held by the regional archaeological trusts. Another source is Cadw, the historic environment service of the Welsh Government, which works to protect the historic buildings and associated structures, as well as the landscapes and heritage sites of Wales. I have found them extremely helpful when contacted about specific burial sites.
The Archaeology Data Service
Based at the University of York, the Archaeology Data Service is a rich open access digital archive for archaeological research. The aim of the resource is to make available unpublished fieldwork reports in an easily retrievable fashion. At present there are 61461 reports available, covering all areas of the UK. Two features of note include ARCHSEARCH, an integrated online catalogue indexing over 1.3 million metadata records from UK historic environment inventories and the ADS Library, which brings together bibliographic records and Open Access documents of both published and unpublished works relating to Archaeology.
National archives, whether here in the UK or abroad, can be a treasure trove of information. In the UK, the National Archives at Kew is home to millions of historical documents and forms a unique resource for those interested in the history of the United Kingdom. Their collection of records encompasses a huge range of subjects, so no matter what you are researching you will come across something of interest. A useful online catalogue search feature is available, and a digitisation programme is currently underway, with over 5% of The National Archives' records have so far been digitised. However, a word of warning, document requests can be rather expensive.
Area specific archives are also an excellent resource. A couple I have used recently for book research include:
Highland Archive Centre - is responsible for collecting, preserving, and making accessible, archives relating to the history of the Highlands. The archive date from the 14th century to the present day covering the counties of Inverness, Nairn, Ross and Cromarty and Sutherland.
London Metropolitan Archives - a public research centre which specialises in the history of London, caring for and providing access to the historical archives of businesses, schools, hospitals, charities and all manner of other organisations from the London area. With over 100km of books, maps, photographs, films and documents dating back to 1067 in our strong rooms, it is one of the finest city archives in the world.
Institute of Historical Research - The UK’s national centre of historical research, providing a digital library of key primary and secondary sources for Britain and the UK.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is an intergovernmental organisation of six independent member states whose principal function is to mark, record and maintain the graves and places of commemoration of Commonwealth of Nations military service members who died in the two World Wars. Not only do they build and maintain cemeteries at 23,000 locations all over the world, but they also have an excellent online database which enables the researcher to find the whereabouts of particular war dead individuals, as well as their service record.
One of my favourite pastimes is to explore the excellent Wellcome Collection website. Here you will find thousands of books, manuscripts, visual materials, and unpublished archives from the collection, many with free online access/downloadable. Simply tap your requirements into the search engine facility and a myriad of documents and images regarding death and burial/cemeteries/graveyards can be explored.
Cemetery Friends Groups/Local History & Archaeology Groups
Contacting your local history society, or archaeology group, can provide a wealth of information. A great deal of their work is carried on behind the scenes, including historical research in various archival centres, but a lot of their of work takes place in churchyards and cemeteries, where they plot every tombstone onto a site plan, accurately record the full inscription, and take photographic records (and scale drawings where necessary). Many groups are happy to share their findings, others publish regularly in quarterly magazines. A simple website search should provide you with the contact details of any such group in your designated/chosen research area. Examples of some of my personal favourites include:
British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia - An organisation that helps to conserve old European cemeteries, preserve historic tombs and monuments and record old cemeteries and inscriptions on graves over a wide area of South and East Asia.
Moray Burial Ground Research Group - An active voluntary group, formed in 2003, with the task of surveying every burial ground in Moray, which also includes part of the old county of Banff.
Angus Antiquarian - a newly digitised archive, founded by Darren Eyers, which provides a database of burial registers for the New Howff, or Constitution Cemetery, in Dundee. Currently there are 5200 entries transcribed here, these have been obtained from the original registers, at present this covers 1836 to 1843 with more being added over the coming months.
Furthermore, it is worth looking at specific University department websites, as many contain free downloadable information, in addition to BA, MA and PhD thesis research files, which may also be of use.
Find a Grave
In truth, I have reservations in using this site, as it has proved to be exceptionally unreliable on many an occasion. However, I thought it was worth including as people can make up their own minds with regards to its merit. Founded in 1995, by cemetery enthusiast Jim Tipton, Find a Grave is an American website, now owned by Ancestry.com, that allows the public to search and add to an international online database of cemetery records. Information is available on hundreds of cemeteries and burial grounds, including individual memorials and headstones, as well as information regarding many of those buried within, usually depicted in photographic form. Membership to the site is free, and anyone can sign up to become a volunteer contributor.
Victorian Graveyard Shenanigans
For those interested in the more macabre aspects of graveyards and cemeteries, I highly recommend the DiggingUp1800 website. Founded and owned by Suzie Lennox, archivist and author of the excellent book, Bodysnatching: Digging Up The Untold Stories of Britain's Resurrection Men, Lennox explores the hidden world of Victorian graveyards, with a special emphasis on body snatching and mortsafes. Content is updated weekly, including a regular blog.
Another personal site that has a lot of useful information is the Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard
Over the years a steady growth in online sources have become readily available. The following are just an example of those I have found useful in my own mortuary research:
Archive.org is a non-profit digital library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, and websites.
JSTOR - is a digital library founded in 1995 in New York City, United States. Originally containing digitized back issues of academic journals, it now encompasses books and other primary sources as well as current issues of journals. It provides full-text searches of almost 2,000 journals. Membership is free, although access to all material is sadly not. Some older resource material is free to download, or to read online, but most of their material does incur a charge, which can be rather expensive. Unlimited access is provided to those with a recognised academic affiliation.
Academia.edu - A useful alternative to JSTOR is Academia.edu is a for-profit open repository of academic articles, many researchers upload their recent finds, and is it free to read by visitors
Project Gutenberg - Project Gutenberg is a volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works, as well as to "encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks." It was founded in 1971 by American writer Michael S. Hart and is the oldest digital library, housing over 60,000 free eBooks.
Social Media Sites
Finally, I would also advocate the use of such sites as Twitter and Facebook in respect to gathering information. Direct contact can be made with particular researchers, in your chosen area of study/interest, many of whom are only too happy to share information. But please BE POLITE when initiating contact, you would be surprised at how many folks are not, and do not grumble if it takes them a while to respond. Not all researchers like or use social media on a regular basis.
Add your comment