3 top tips for finding your ancestor's gravestone

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29 June 2022
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18th century gravestones in St Peter's parish churchyard, Hanwell, Oxfordshire. Copyright: Poliphilo
Find your ancestor's final resting place with David Annal's top tips on making the most of a family history churchyard visit.

When it comes to visiting the places that your ancestors knew, the building that is most likely to have survived is, of course, the parish church – and this is where you might just find some hidden treasure.

The very act of walking into the building in which your ancestors worshipped – of standing next to the altar at which they were married and the font where their children were baptised – can, in itself, prove to be a powerful and emotional experience. But it’s what’s outside the church that is probably of interest to family historian: row upon row of stones commemorating the lives of those who came before us.

Top 3 tips for finding an ancestor’s gravestone

1 Plan your visit

As with any sort of research, the more planning you do, the better your experience will be. Most churches, and virtually every churchyard, are open to the public (during the daytime at least) but it’s a good idea to check beforehand. One of the churches I recently visited (All Saints, Shirburn in Oxfordshire) is located on the Earl of Macclesfield’s estate and we had to phone the estate office in advance to arrange access.

But the most important thing to do in advance of any graveyard visit is to check whether the gravestone transcriptions have been transcribed and if so, how/where you can access the transcriptions.

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2 Try the local family history society

Family history societies are a fantastic source of indexes to what are usually referred to as monumental inscriptions (Mis) in the family history world. Your first step should be to check the relevant society’s website to see what’s available. Don’t leave this until the last minute as you’ll find that most of the published indexes are available as printed booklets of CD-ROMs which will need to be posted to you. Some societies offer their Mis as digital downloads but this is often a members-only service. As an aside, I would always encourage you to join any family history societies relevant to your areas of interest as a matter of course.

3 Get the graveyard plan 

Some of the indexes include a plan that should lead you straight to the location of a particular grave. But even if the index simply tells you that a gravestone exists and perhaps leaves you to search a specific section of the graveyard, you’re still better prepared than if you’d just turned up without any preparation. If nothing else, you know that there’s a grave to be found and that, at the time the index was compiled, the text on the stone was legible enough to allow the transcriber to read it.

Read more of David Annal’s advice in the August 2022 issue of Family Tree. Download your copy here.

David Annal has been involved in the family history world for more than 40 years and Is a former principal family history specialist at the National Archives. He is an experienced lecturer and the author of a number of best-selling family history books, including Easy Family History and (with Peter Christian) Census: The Family Historian’s Guide. David now runs his own family history research business, Lifelines Research