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Deathly clues to family history

Updated Tuesday 4th September 2007

The traces people leave as they end their life can provide family historians with the perfect starting place.

gravestones in a cemetery Copyrighted image Icon Copyright:

"Die, my dear Doctor, that’s the very last thing I shall do."

These were the famous last words of 19th Century Prime Minister Lord Palmerston. Death has a particular fascination for historians; it is the great leveller, involving everybody, high and low, and it is a milestone that often leaves records.

If the death occurred after 1837 there is little difficulty in obtaining basic information. All deaths in the United Kingdom and British colonies must be registered. You can get a copy of any death certificate by logging onto the site. All stillbirths have had to be registered since 1927. 

If the person is famous (or, occasionally, infamous) they will almost certainly have an obituary. The most comprehensive British collection of these is the multi-volume Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which was founded in 1882 but goes back to earliest times (its first editor was Sir Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf). Who Was Who was first published in 1897 and comes out at regular intervals; it contains the entries for all those who were in Who’s Who. It lists a fascinating combination of information, such as hobbies, clubs and even phone numbers.

Newspapers, national and local, are another important source of information about death. The most famous of these is The Times, first published in 1785, but all the main broadsheets feature comprehensive accounts. Don’t forget national newspapers that are now out of print, such as the News Chronicle, the Morning Post and the Westminster Gazette. Many newspapers can be accessed on line or on site but the most comprehensive collection is available at the British Museum Newspaper Library (email:, tel: 020 7412 7353). Remember to check the deaths column in the newspaper: many families would have put basic details there. The local press, especially in a more sedate age, often listed not only who was present at funerals but what was on the wreaths and even, occasionally, what was in the sandwiches!

Your local county records office (almost certainly in the county town) will have a variety of sources that may well be able to help you. The chief of these will be church records, many of which will go back to medieval times. You may also find details of cemeteries, hospitals (available after a hundred years), workhouses, wills and coroners’ courts. You should contact the archive office and talk to them about what is available.

Gravestones and graveyards can be of enormous help to the historian. There are four crucial questions to answer. First, when was the monument erected? This can range from prehistoric to the very recent past. Church records (usually kept in the county records office) will be of help here. There can be wide variations, depending on the particular church, Christian denomination or other religion. Tip: whatever the place of worship concerned, do contact them first. It is good manners and appreciated, and you will gain much more from local knowledge.

Secondly, what information is contained there? You may get dates of birth and death, occupation, career details, children, family, the feelings of the bereaved and a lot else besides. Thirdly, what is the style? Like everything else, fashion comes and goes, even when commemorating death. There is a whole range of information, for example, in the positioning of the feet of crusader knights. Fourthly, what skills will you need to understand the monument? For gravestones up till the 18th Century, for instance, you may well need to know some Latin and certainly the English usage of the time.

Remember a few basic facts. The poor in particular often have no known grave or are buried in a pauper’s grave with little or no identification. The richer the person concerned, the more likely they are to have a sumptuous monument. The growth of a secular society and cremation (first legalised in 1884) may mean fewer gravestones. All of us should perhaps remember the inscription from a 1698 tombstone in Suffolk:

Good people all, as you
Pass by, looke round
See how Corpes do lye                     
For as you are, some time were we
And as we are so you must be.  

(spelling as in original)

A good general guide to exploring gravestones is: Hilary Lees, Exploring English Churchyard Memorials, Tempus Publishing Ltd., 2002, ISBN: 0-7524-2525-0.

If you are visiting a church looking for gravestones or memorials, a good tip is to contact the vicar or church warden first. This will smooth your path and they will have a good idea as to where the memorials may be located. Remember too that, in this more secular age, many churches, especially in towns, can be locked when not in use. The older the gravestone, the more detective work may be needed. Some inscriptions may be hard to read; the English may be archaic; and many will be either in whole or in part in Latin.

The more prudent of us will make a will. These can be a revealing source of information. Shakespeare, in his will, for example wrote: “Item, I give unto my wife my second best bed, with the furniture.” In 1850 only half the population of the country were able to read and write. Then, as now, legal advice did not come cheap. This means that, the further back in time, the less likely it is that the ordinary citizen would have made a will. If the will was made after 1858, there will be relatively little difficulty in accessing it. Before 11th January 1858, probate was the responsibility of over 300 ecclesiastical courts and this can be more challenging.

Modern wills can be best traced through,

The National Archives for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all provide detailed information about searching for wills and how to interpret them. A fascinating record of historical probate of more than 15 million names can be found on Family Search, a research site created by the Latter Day Saints, the Mormons. The range goes from the early 1500s to the late 1800s and covers England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

The internet has added an enormous bonus for historians researching in this and related fields. It is one of the many reasons why family history is one of the fastest growing fields in research. I found out recently by chance that one of my ancestors was travelling on the Titanic under an assumed name! Family history courses are now available through many universities and colleges, including the OU. Your local bookshop will certainly have a wide variety of books on family history and tracing your ancestors. The BBC’s family history site is very helpful. One of the biggest suppliers of resources, magazines and books in this field is the Family History Bookshop.

John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, put his finger on it:

"In the long run we are all dead."

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