I have to admit to having a soft spot for a good burial records book. So it was with great interest that I learned a few months ago of a project to map every churchyard and burial ground in England and Wales. There have been a few articles published about it over the past couple of months so you may already know about it, but if not I hope this overview will be of interest.
It’s a huge project, commenced in the autumn of 2021 by Cumbria-based surveying and mapping company Atlantic Geomatics. Using state-of-the-art equipment, they are creating accurate maps of everything in every churchyard or cemetery. They will then photograph the memorials and headstones, and finally scan in original records of parish registers, linking them to specific graves on the map. Apart from the obvious uses for genealogists, church and local authority officials will be able to access their own private areas on the website, adding new records and photographs and recording biodiversity and health & safety information.
There are more than 18,000 church and municipal burial grounds in England and Wales. As of last August more than three hundred of them had been mapped, and it’s expected that the entire project will take seven years.
Although the church and other organisations will have free access to their own part of the website, there will be a cost to us, currently set at £8 per burial ground per month. This seems to me ample time to gather all the information for all ancestors buried in one parish or one municipal cemetery, and then perhaps subscribe another month to a different place.
Although The National Burial Grounds Survey website is now live, at the time of writing it just provides information about what’s happening and what will be available. There are also a couple of examples of mapped graveyards, but without the interactive records and headstone facilities. We won’t all have to wait seven years before any information beomes available, though. Completed data will go online diocese by diocese, as all stages of work for every burial ground within its boundaries become complete.
I’ve been thinking about how it might help with our research. Clearly there are overlaps with already available record sets and websites. Find-a-Grave, for example, (owned by Ancestry.com) includes data from 549,619 cemeteries in 246 different countries, with burial site, plot, information and headstone photographs. However, availability of information depends on whether or not a member of the Find-a-Grave ‘community’ has photographed and added the details to the website. The National Burial Grounds Survey will be systematic and largely all-embracing. I note from a document provided for the information of church/parish officials (see link at bottom of post) that ‘unmarked graves’ will not be mapped but can be added by officials when their whereabouts becomes known. I’m assuming this means plots simply not presently known to be graves, rather than ‘graves without a headstone’.
Family researchers like us will be able to do an initial search for free, and then subcribe by the month to access detailed information, including the exact location of the grave. This will be a great improvement on existing arrangements, which often involve contacting ‘Cems and Crems’ or religious burial ground officials, or even someone representing ‘Friends of XXX Cemetery’ going out and walking around to try to track down a specific grave for us. I’ve been lucky to have had great experience of these kinds of contacts, and free of charge, but some authorities make a significant charge for providing the information (more than the £8 monthly fee suggested here for just one request). It will be much easier to do an online index search and take it from there.
Linking the grave to the burial record is useful. Although much of this information is already available online, to see digital photos of the original record you do generally need a subscription to the commercial website licensed to provide it by the relevant Records Office where the originals are lodged. Furthermore, although coverage is increasing, not all parishes are yet available online; and certainly not all municipal cemeteries. My experience is that records kept by the latter are generally far more comprehensive than parish burial registers, easily standing in for a civil death certificate if required. In other words, the information provide by the records will vary in quality and detail and certainly won’t differ from what might already be available online.
Finally, although I note that the interior of churches will be mapped and location of pews, etc, recorded, there is no mention of the recording of graves within the churches, nor indeed the memorial flagstones, which I think is a great omission. Since amateur and professional genealogists are likely to be the primary paying users of the website, I think this is a missed opportunity. It’s a pity a representative from the Society of Genealogists or other family history organisation was not called upon for advice regarding the type of information we want. That said, precise locational information about who was buried where may already have been lost. The 1663 parish burial record of one of my ancestors states he was buried in the south aisle of the church. I’ve tried to find out precisely where, and with a view to photographing the memorial flagstone. Unfortunately, in this case the flagstones have long since been replaced, and there is no map.
To conclude, based on the information so far publicly available, I’m optimistic about this project. I’m sure it will make tracking down the final resting place of many people a simpler task, and without the need to bother local administrators with individual requests. Finding the exact location of the grave of many ancestors will be much easier, and that’s to be welcomed. I know I’ll be keen to subscribe for a month as soon as I know any of my main burial grounds of interest have gone live. That said, for the reasons outlined above there will inevitably be gaps in the indexes and, particularly for long-ago burials, it may not provide that vital piece of missing information we’ve been desperately hunting.
Here’s some additional information found online:
A document produced by the Church of England/ Atlantic Geomatics for the information of church and parish officials
An article about the project: The Spooky Quest to Build a Google Maps for Graveyards (NB: I don’t think it’s at all ‘spooky’!)
This looks like it’s going to be a really useful asset. It’s not clear from the project’s website, but it doesn’t appear to cover non-conformist sites, which would be useful.
I suspect you’re right David. Some municipal grounds that I refer to have nonconformist sections, but it doesn’t look like nonconformist-specific sites will be included here. On the other hand this is such a huge undertaking and I didn’t realise until I got towards the bottom of the Info for officials document that it’s speculative: the cost is being born entirely by the company. Perhaps if it’s successful and brings in money he will continue on to other burial grounds – but that’s a long way off isn’t it!
It’s still going to be a very helpful resource, let’s hope it’s a success.