Finding your ancestor’s death record is an important part of family history research, confirming their date of death and providing an end to researching their life story. Civil registration in England and Wales was introduced in 1837, creating a national register of birth, marriage and death records at the General Register Office. If you’re tracing ancestors before 1837 or who’ve disappeared from the records, you’ll need to find their burial record in a local cemetery or graveyard. It’s also worth looking for cemetery records because the memorial inscription may well include additional information, such as the names of bereaved family members.
Graveyards, municipal cemeteries and crematoria look after their own records, there is no central registry, and what is available online varies a great deal from place to place. Fortunately, over the past two decades the gaps in finding cemetery records have gradually been filled by community-generated and commercial hubs specialising in memorial inscriptions and cemetery records. Keep in mind, however, that some people may have asked to be buried a long way from where they were living when they died.
While you’re trying to find cemetery records, a good place to start is Findmypast, which has significant memorial inscriptions collections from England and Scotland. TheGenealogist also runs a headstone photographic project via UKIndexer with thousands of images and records. Manchester is well-provided for cemetery records, with burial and cremation records from six municipal cemeteries available via the city council website. If you’re searching for Belfast cemetery records, meanwhile, the council website has 360,000 records from three cemeteries dating back to 1869.
Remember, while you’re researching an ancestor’s death, you can also look up their will.
Where to find cemetery records online
This people-powered cemetery records website has been around for a quarter of a century. And while the mammoth photographic database used to have a heavy US bias, its UK coverage continues to improve. The site was bought by Ancestry in 2013, and has lots of tools designed to make it quick and easy to share cemetery records, not least through the app. To become a contributing member you will need to register, then you can add cemeteries, manage/update memorials, upload photographs and suggest edits. There’s a ‘virtual cemetery’ tool, with which you can gather records from around the world to your profile page. You can also log a request if you would like a local volunteer to take a picture of a not-yet-photographed headstone.
This long-running UK cemetery records site continues to expand its roster, and it remains a fairly quick and simple matter to find what you need to know. You can browse the registers by country, region, county, burial authority or crematorium free of charge, or search by name. If you sign up (there’s pay-per-view, or annual subscriptions starting at £89) you can access digitised cremation or burial registers, as well as photographs of the graves or memorials, and cemetery maps showing the grave’s exact location. The site has thousands of records from London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ for example, and recent additions include material from cemeteries managed by Exeter City Council.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website is home to a database of burial records 1.7 million Commonwealth men and women who died fighting in the First and Second World Wars. You can search the website by a number of fields (narrowing searches by conflict, country, force etc), and you can find out more about individual cemeteries and memorials. You can either choose a county and browse a list of results, or explore via a map. Each location includes the number of casualties recorded there, GPS coordinates, and of course the individuals memorialised. Worcestershire, for example, has 161 locations.
This cemetery records website holds transcribed memorial inscriptions from across the world. Access is free, and most of the transcriptions come from local government sources, as well as churches and genealogical groups. The UK coverage varies a great deal – there’s only one Sussex cemetery, for example – but it’s worth seeing what’s here from your area.
The best way to gain a sense of the UK coverage of this cemetery records behemoth is by using the search tool at BillionGraves. A map appears with cemeteries, crematoria and graveyards marked. Blue tags indicate no additional data/photos, green means there are entries – a single click reveals how many headstone images lie within – and yellow signifies there’s an outstanding photo request. Like Findagrave, the website offers an app for iOS and Android that allows you to locate, photograph and upload headstones. The index is also available on Findmypast and FamilySearch.
Expert’s tips on finding cemetery records
From Lorraine Evans, author of Burying the Dead: An Archaeological History of Burial Grounds, Graveyards and Cemeteries:
“Researching cemetery records can be a rather daunting task. 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 public. 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.
“I live in the remote Highlands of Scotland, where gaining access to physical library collections is no simple matter, involving journeys of many hours and hundreds of miles. As such, Historic Environment Scotland has been a valuable resource in my search for private burial grounds that are now lost, or grave markers that have since disappeared. For example, most of the publications by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, from 1908 to 2015, have been digitised and are now available to search and download. I have obtained vital information in respect to changes in parish boundaries when searching for elusive clan interments.
“Finally Historic Environment Scotland also hosts Canmore, an online database that currently has some 1.3 million catalogue entries, such as drawings and manuscripts, as well as an Image Search facility of more than 333,000 images. Some of these relate to cemetery research, and comprise modern-day surveys to photographic collections.”
Jonathan Scott is the author of A Dictionary of Family History