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by Graham Woodward
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Guide to Burials
Picture of a cemetery

Burial has for centuries been the most common method in Britain of disposing of corpses. It is defined in the English Dictionary as, "the act of placing a body in a grave or tomb".

Most early burials took place in a local churchyard or graveyard, but from the 1850s municipal cemeteries were introduced to meet the demand for burial plots following a massive increase in the population.

The term 'graveyard' usually means the grounds of a church, whereas the term 'cemetery' means a place of burial not connected with a church, such as a local authority cemetery or private cemetery. Burials often occurred without a funeral, especially where children or poor people were concerned.

Early records

It's worth remembering that the Church only recorded the religious event - a burial, not a death or a funeral. Although a funeral often contains religious elements it is not a true religious ceremony and is not normally recorded in parish records, although some very early church records did include the event. It is extremely rare for the actual date of death to be noted in church records.

Parish Registers were introduced in 1538, and formal burial records before then are practically non existent. Manorial records may help where the deceased was a copyhold tenant, otherwise unless your ancestor was wealthy, owned a large estate or left a Will, there is unlikely to be any record of the death. Often, family bibles are the only source of death records from this era.

From 1538, burial records were kept on pieces of paper with the baptism records. When books were introduced in 1598 the burial records were often entered on the opposite page to baptisms, but in some parishes they were still mixed in amongst the baptism records. In some cases the book was turned upside down and burials were entered from the back to the front. This makes them easy to miss. You should always check every page, both sides.

The information recorded varies according to each parish. At first only the name of the person being buried and the date of burial was recorded. It wasn't until the 17th century that burial records relating to children mentioned the name of the parents, and then usually only the name of the dead child's father. Later the mother's name was included, but age at death wasn't entered until the late 18th century, and in some parishes, not at all before 1813.

Infant mortality

Before the 19th century child deaths accounted for almost half of all burials. Infant mortality (death before aged 1 year) was at least 100 times higher than today. Between 1700 and 1800, 5% of children died within the first few days of birth and 20% died before age 10. In some cities at the end of the 18th century half the children died before they were five years old; in London before they were three years old.

When a women suffered a miscarriage, (generally accepted as being before 24 weeks) the 'death' wasn't usually recorded. This is because most churches only recorded burials of children who had been baptised and stillborn children were never baptised.

Infants often did not have their own grave. They were either wrapped in the same woollen cloth, or placed in the same coffin as an adult being buried. This kept the cost down for poor families. Although there was no individual grave, where the child had been baptised the burial was usually recorded. This situation continued well into the mid 20th century. My mother recollected that in the late 1920s her aunt gave birth to two still-born sons. The hospital wrapped the children in cloth and put them in a carrier bag. Her uncle bought them home on the bus and the local undertaker placed them in the coffin of an old lady who had died a few days earlier! The burials were not recorded.

Burials not recorded

Between the 1550s and the 1640s about a quarter of all burials were not recorded. This was often down to events, such as the English civil war, but also because vicars forget to enter them in the register. Burials went unrecorded during epidemics such as smallpox and cholera, as the numbers dying were often too many to manage and burial was undertaken immediately to avoid the spread of the disease. Hospitals often had their own burial grounds although the burials were usually recorded in the parish record. Workhouses sometimes recorded the death of inmates in their own records, and buried paupers in their own burial ground, but some sent the bodies to the local church to be buried. Again, it is important to check all available records. Most criminals who were hanged were buried in a pit behind the prison, the event being recorded in the prison records, not the parish records.

Specific things to look out for in parish records

  • Two children with the same first (or given) name, baptised to the same parents, usually means that the first child died.
  • A gap of four years or more in the normal baptism cycle for a family usually means a stillbirth or miscarriage.
  • Ages recorded at death should be treated as only a guide - often the only person who knew the deceased's age was the deceased! Many illiterate people didn't know exactly when they were born, and after they were dead the record relied on information provided by relatives or friends.
  • Widows were often recorded as 'wife of' even though the husband may have been dead for sometime.
  • Names can vary; it was common for a person to be baptised with one spelling of their surname, married with another and buried under a third variation.
  • Marriage certificates do not always show that the father of the bride or groom was dead. Do not presume that the father was still alive just because the record did not refer to him as 'deceased'.

Important point about the calendar

Up until 1752 in England, new years day was celebrated on 25th March not 1st January; eg. December 1750 would be followed in the parish records by January 1750. It is therefore easy to dismiss burial records listed in date order (eg. IGI or National Burial Index) because they seem to be at the wrong time.

An example of how this can lead to a burial being ignored would be where a child was baptised in late December 1750, and buried in early January 1750. On first viewing this burial would be dismissed as being 11 months before the child was born, when in fact it could be no more than a few weeks after the birth. (To find out more about how the calendar evolved see my Guide to the Calendar.)


Picture of a headstone Headstones in graveyards often provide a wealth of information. Stones from the 16th century or earlier are rare, but some dating back to the early 17th century are still legible, especially if made of slate. Before 1813, headstones are one of the few sources available for the age of a person at death, although the information should always be treated with caution until verified by other evidence.

Traditionally, Christian graves lie east-west, with the person's head at the western end, in front of the headstone (a remnant of Pagan sun-worshipping days) with the text facing east. Clergy were often buried the other way around. Also, when a husband and wife were buried side-by-side, the husband was usually buried on the south side.

Older headstones may only show the deceased's initials and the year, but later stones usually contained much more information such as details of the husband, wife, and in many cases one or more of their children.

Poor families usually could not afford a headstone, and most graves only had wooden crosses. If your family were wealthy they may have a memorial tablet inside the church. These are usually in good condition and with some families can provided a potted history of the family through several generations.

Most old headstones have been removed from graveyards for safety reasons, as they become unstable after long periods in the ground. However, even where they are still in place the comparatively small number of gravestones in some churchyards can belie the number of bodies buried there. The churchyard of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London was only 200 feet (60 metres) square yet, in the early 1840's, was estimated to contain the remains of over 60,000 people.

1813 onwards

In 1813 George Rose's Act introduced a standard form on which burial records had to be entered. The Act introduced separate books to record burials; eight records to a page. It also specified that the following information must be recorded:

  • the name of the deceased
  • the abode (address) of the deceased at the time of death
  • the date of burial
  • the age of the deceased
  • the name of the person that performed the ceremony.

Unfortunately the Act meant that those parishes that previously recorded more information (such as family information) now had nowhere to enter the information, and in that respect the new records were something of a backward step. However as most parishes only recorded very limited information (eg. William Woodward, buried this day 26 May 1797) the introduction has proved beneficial to most researchers.

Civil registration - 1837 onwards

Since 1 July 1837, all deaths in England and Wales must be registered in the same way as births and marriages. The new style death certificates contain the name, sex, age and occupation of the deceased, the cause of death, the name, address and relationship of the informant and the date of registration. The death must be registered within five days of the event.

Causes of death entered in the register are not always accurate or medically sound. Typical examples include statements such as 'old age' or 'heart failure'. Compulsory registration of stillbirths (defined as 'after 24 weeks') did not start until 1927, and before 1874 no certificate was required before a stillborn child was buried. If an inquest was held, such as with a suspicious death, a burial certificate was sometimes issued so that the body could be buried. The death certificate was then issued after the inquest.

Details of the informant can often help prove that the death is your relative. This is particularly useful when several persons of the same name (John Woodward etc.) died around the same time and you have no idea which one relates to your relative. With over 610,00 deaths annually in the UK (2018), searching can be much easier if you have lots of information about the person.

Cremation began in 1885 in Woking, Surrey, and since 1968 over half the people who have died in the UK have been cremated. Some ashes are later buried in churchyards. In all cases however there will still be a death certificate which is the most important document for family history researchers.

Military burials

Soldiers and sailors who died abroad were usually buried either in a mass grave near where they died or at sea, as appropriate; only very wealthy or high ranking officers were sent home to be buried (ie. Lord Nelson, preserved in a barrel of Brandy). The Commonwealth War Graves Commission holds records of all service personnel who died in the First and Second World Wars. The General Register Office has a register of army deaths from 1796, navy deaths from 1837 and RAF deaths from 1920.

Further reading

The Federation of Family History Societies has compiled a National Burial Index which covers the period 1538-2008, available on CD-Rom. The third edition, published in 2010, contains over 18.4 million records. A link to their website is available in the heading at the top of this page.

Compiled by Graham Woodward, Nottingham, England (UK).