Grave matters - how and why to 'kill off' your ancestors


07 December 2018
800px-Brompton_Cemetery_in_London-79659.jpg Brompton Cemetery
In this latest blog, Paul Chiddicks takes a look at how and why you should obtain a death certificate for your ancestors.

In this latest blog, Paul Chiddicks takes a look at how and why you should obtain a death certificate for your ancestors.

I hope you have been enjoying my series of blogs for Family Tree, exploring the different ways in which you can grow your tree. I have covered a few different ideas in previous blogs, and depending on your own interests and passions, there are plenty of new ways in which you can pursue your family tree, even when the various lines on your `tree appear to have “dried up”.

So let’s look at a slightly harsh sounding idea and look at the importance of “killing your ancestors off” and how you can do that and why you should.

Why do you need a death certificate?

A lot of people, when they first start researching their family tree, bypass the need to look at death certificates, in the urge to pursue lines back as far as possible. After all, a death certificate doesn’t really offer much help does it?

The new GRO PDF pilot scheme, has made death certificates much more affordable and makes them more easily accessible. So what does our £6 payment to the GRO bring us? Well if you are like me and like things neat and tidy, the death certificate brings us full circle and enables you to complete the genealogy loop, so to speak. It completes the story for that individual, however small or large their contribution to your tree.

You never know, if you are lucky, you might even discover some unknown potential ancestors who might have been present at the death.

So let us take a look at just one example and dissect the information here on my great-grandfather’s death certificate:

Details on a death certificate

We can obviously see where and when William Tom Wootton died, including the full address, but looking closely at the informant, his son E.T.Wootton, we can clearly see, that he was actually living next door to his father when he died.

We obviously get the full cause of death, but the rank or profession can certainly open some new doors for us, it clearly states the unusual career of a stained glass glazier, retired. There is one more hidden gem for us to find and that is the name of the person to whom the certificate was issued, in this case, it is William Tom Wootton’s married daughter, Margaret Gladys Barber and we also have kindly been given an address for her, pure gold!

So without the death certificate, would we have been able to establish all this information, hard to say, but suffice to say, that there is a wealth of information here, for us to add to our tree.

Eliminating your ancestor

Equally as important, we have completed the full genealogy circle for our ancestor, but more importantly, what this also does for us, is to eliminate our ancestor from any future searches where there is potentially more than one suitable candidate. Especially if, like my family, you have common forenames, I have nine Thomas Woottons and six William Woottons on my tree! As any “good detective” will tell you, this will eliminate him from our future enquiries.

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How find a burial or cremation record

So now we have “killed off” our ancestor, the next step is to find a burial or cremation record for him or her.

We now have a date of death to work with and also an address and area to search, so this gives us a good clue to potential burial locations. A good place to look and one that might not necessarily be you’re first thought, is google maps. I always use this in the first instance, to pinpoint our death location.

Then look within a few miles, for potential municipal cemeteries and or crematoriums and churchyards. Religious interests will also come into the equation of course, whether they were Church of England, Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, non conformists, or something different, it will give a good clue as to potential burial sites in the local area.

Online cemetery and burial records

A growing list of online cemetery and burial records are also available online now, a few are listed here, some will require a subscription or payment, but this is by no means an exhaustive list:

If you are still struggling to find a burial location of your ancestor, consider the fact that they might have changed religion, difficult to imagine perhaps, but my 2 x great grandfather, Thomas Wootton, was baptised Church of England and married my  2 x great-grandmother, Nicolina Elizabeth Stampa, who was of Italian origin and changed his faith, just before he died, so that they could be buried together in a Catholic cemetery. So expect the unexpected and be prepared to think outside of the box (No pun intended!). They were both buried in the Catholic Cemetery of St. Mary’s London.

How to locate your ancestor's burial plot

The last part of our death and burial journey is to locate the plot itself. Sadly unless you have come from a wealthy background, not all graves are marked with a marker, so the best hope, is to obtain a graveyard plan and look for an appropriate grave or marker nearby.

My tip to help you with finding a location of a grave is to enlist the help, if possible, of the local gravedigger, their local knowledge has proved invaluable to me over the years and they are normally grateful to have somebody to talk to. I am pretty sure I would not have found this grave without the help of the local gravedigger.

Make sure you note exactly the burial location for next time and of course make sure you take a photograph of the plot and headstone, if there is one, and maybe a photo or two of the cemetery and churchyard itself. Top tip: take a packed lunch and a flask of something warm and pack warm clothing and waterproof shoes, as you might be searching for some considerable time.

That’s it, your ancestor’s full and eventful life is now fully captured and recorded for your own tree and for those that follow on, long after we have become a statistic ourselves...

Follow Paul on Twitter and his blog.

Researching the names: Chiddicks in Essex; Daniels in Dublin; Keyes in Prittlewell; Wootton in Herefordshire and London; Jack in Scotland.

(Brompton Cemetery image [top] copyright P Przemeck]