Beyond the Internet: Week 37 Monumental Inscriptions and Gravestones

This is Week 37 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens and the topic is Cemeteries: Monumental Inscriptions and Gravestones. This forms part of the cheerily named “Death” theme in the series. In the coming weeks we’ll talk about burial registers and funeral undertakers.

The grave of Thomas and Ellen O’Brien in the Broadford Catholic churchyard.

This topic seems almost unnecessary as most of us are aware of the importance of trying to see our ancestors’ graves.  Once upon a time this could only be done by visiting the cemetery however near or far it was. These days technology has made massive steps towards our ability to virtually see these graves even if visiting is impossible for us.

On the flip side, over the past 10 or 20 years while technology and the internet has been helping us solve this problem, those old gravestones have deteriorated to varying degrees – some to the point of illegibility.  So it’s still worth sussing out whether there are older photos around the place which may have captured the gravestone you’re looking for.

On my various travels I’ve taken photos of graves in cemeteries where I’ve visited. I don’t focus just on relatives but I also photograph stones where the monumental inscriptions are fading into oblivion or where the stones themselves are in imminent danger of falling and breaking as well as looking out for people who are buried a long way from home. My plan was to one day add these to my Flickr site, but it’s also one of the tasks I’ve barely touched. I should be following Crissouli’s lead with Irish Graves: those who lie in foreign lands.

CHIIIRPPD! OR What you can, and can’t, you find out from a gravestone. 

CAUTION:  In many cemeteries, in Australia at least, burials occurred according to religious affiliation with areas of the cemetery dedicated to the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists etc etc. However caution is required when finding an ancestor in the “wrong” burial area. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’d changed their religious affiliations – the rationale may be burial with a relative, financial reasons etc.  For example the Gavins mentioned below are buried in the Anglican section of Toowoomba cemetery even though they were definitely Catholic and buried by the RC clergyman.

HIDDEN PEOPLE: You may find a clue about the existence of someone who hasn’t made it into the records elsewhere. For example the gravestone of Mark and Anna Gavin mentioned a Peter Conroy. Searching for his death and burial records turned up no results. However the story of his death is mentioned in the newspapers and had been indexed by the Toowoomba and Darling Downs Family History Society enabling me to identify it in the pre-Trove era.[i]

The MI for Thomas and Ellen O’Brien photographed in 2003.

ILLEGIBILITY: If you find the grave and can’t read the MI, don’t despair. Check out old indexes of MIs or photographs (where available) to see if you can learn more from them: you’ll find many of these in your local family history centre or perhaps the nearest one to the town you’re searching. For example, the generous donation of photos and indexes for the Broadford cemetery in Co Clare omits my 2x great uncle, Thomas O’Brien. This is in no way due to any error of the donor, rather that the MI is now illegible. Luckily I have an earlier photograph from 1992 which I need to provide to the site.  If you can’t locate an old photos why not put a post up on one of the chat groups to see if anyone can help.

IMAGERY: It may not add to your ancestor’s biographical information, but the imagery and any wording/poetry/prayers will add insight into your family’s belief systems. There are also people who study the varying imagery used so it may be worth your while to see what you can track down.

INDEXES: Don’t forget that family history societies may have indexed the MIs in your cemetery of interest many years ago. It’s worth checking their indexes to MIs to see if they reveal more than current photos.

RELATIONSHIPS:  If you’re lucky the gravestone MI may include details of relationships between the “inhabitants” of the grave. Alternative proximate graves and MIs might reveal these relationships.

In the churchyard at Moorgate in Nottinghamshire we unexpectedly found my husband’s great grandmother buried with her sisters and mother in two adjoining graves, with coffin-shaped gravestones including comprehensive family details. Happy dances in the falling snow!

My relative James Gavin is similarly remembered on his parents’ MI.

PLACES: It’s not unusual to find an MI mentioning the person’s current place or where they died, and it’s also not uncommon to find reference to a county where they were born overseas. Those of us who are really lucky may find it mentions the village, parish or townland where they came from. This can be gold as it may be the only place where you find this information depending on who completed the death certificate.

The gravestones of Sarah Cass, her mother and three sisters in Moorgate.

PROXIMITY: It has surprised me how often family members are buried near each other in the cemetery. We tend to expect husbands and wives to be buried together but that’s not always the case: they may have been buried with a second spouse or a child, or even a different cemetery. Initially I didn’t know much about my grandfather’s eldest sister. When I found her grave, it was smack bang behind that of other family members.

DON’T ASSUME: You can’t assume that all those named on the stone are actually buried there: it may simply be a memorial to one or more of them (perhaps because they couldn’t afford a stone at the time). There are other ways of checking this: death certificates or burial registers for example, or look in newspapers for any stories about the person’s death.

So there you have it: my assessment of the benefits of monumental inscriptions, and some of the hazards. I hope you find some of it useful but if you’d like to add your discoveries or additions please do so as it will benefit us all.

I’m going to include a slideshow here to illustrate just how lucky you can be with MIs. (Actually I don’t think the slideshow was the best option here so if you’re interested in knowing more about any of these people -see captions- leave a comment request and I’ll get back to you.)

Also see further below for a list of online sources of gravestones.

Next week: Burial registers. These really complement the MI/Cemetery topic but merit a post on their own.

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Some online sources for images of gravestones (there are many others)

Australian Cemeteries (this is one of my favourite grave-search sites)

Co Clare Gravestones – donated material

South East Queensland Headstone Collection: (another of my favourites).

Australian Cemeteries

Carol’s Headstone Photos: Victorian cemeteries predominantly.

Billion Graves

Memento Mori

[i] I told the story of this gravestone in the TDDFHS publication Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery, Our Backyard, 2009, page 85.