First Steps


Planning to take on the task of recording monumental inscriptions is a distinct task in itself. There is always the temptation to go rushing in with a notepad and start taking notes. However, there are a few basic things to consider first.

Has it been done before?

It sounds a silly question. But there is no use in getting started only to find that the gravestones in a churchyard were recorded previously by someone else, or, that someone has already stated that they are committed to taking on the same project. We need to find out.

The people that are likely to know are one or more of the following:

  • The vicar of the church
  • The local family history society
  • The County family history society
  • The local history society
  • The County Archives Office

So the first step is to contact all of these people (not just one), and ask the following questions:

  1. Has it been done before?
  2. To your knowledge, has anyone expressed an intention to do it?

If the answer to 2 above is yes, then try to find out who. They will probably be only too pleased to have your help!

OK, you find that it has not been done previously, and no-one has expressed an interest. The next step is to inform all these same people that you intend to make a project of recording the inscriptions. While you are doing this, you can also inform the local library of your intentions. They will be very pleased to hear of it.

An important point to make is that you will be providing each and every one of them with a printed copy of your final reports, and, if they wish, a copy on disc too. They will like the idea of that – and – if you do need help from any of them, they are much more likely to be co-operative. You will need their co-operation.

Contact the vicar at the church

Try to make an appointment to meet him/her to explain what you want to do.

Bear in mind that churches sometimes get telephone or letter requests from people all over the world to ask if the grave of an ancestor is at their church.

The vicar is often not in a position to answer such queries because of lack of information to hand. He would like to have such information!

Explain that your final product will be a list of names in alphabetical order which will be an index to:

  • A document with grave reference numbers with the whole inscription of each stone.
  • A plan of the graveyard in sections with each grave numbered.

Armed with this information the vicar could very easily answer questions by telephone or mail, or if, as is sometimes the case, an American or Australian (or even an Englishman) knocks on his door asking where an ancestor is buried, he can point them to the exact grave.

Do bear in mind that vicars are extremely well educated people. They believe in records and they appreciate the advantages of having easy access to them!

The vicar will have some reservations. It is up to you to appreciate them and be sensitive to them.

One of his main reservations will be that there may be “crowds” of people trampling around the graves, without showing respect for the dead. This is a very understandable concern. He may also be worried that such activities may upset some of his parishioners. It is up to you to reassure him that you will show every possible respect to both the dead and the living.

He may well be concerned that you may damage gravestones by employing various physical or chemical methods to read weathered inscriptions. He will be aware that gravestones will have rare lichens growing on them, and will be concerned for their preservation. You will need to learn something about these topics so that you can put his mind at rest, if only to let him know that you are aware of the potential problems.

Another point is that he will be extremely aware that it is the responsibility of the church to maintain the churchyard and keep it in good order, but that due to constraints of money and helping hands, this may have not been done as regularly as he would have liked. Do not under any circumstances state your concern that the graveyard might be in a poor state of maintenance. It is likely that this would be a sore point! You are not there to rescue the graves from mis-management! You are there purely to do a job of recording the inscriptions without offering any comment on the state of the graveyard. Whilst on this topic, some churches may have moved gravestones to the boundaries of the plot, or stood them up against walls, or the church itself. Some may have even used them as paving slabs. My personal opinion, and that shared by many others, is that this is wrong, but we are not there to pass judgment on their reasons for doing it. It will be a sore point again, and we need co-operation and not conflict.

You will need to make an agreement with him what you intend to do about any gravestones which have fallen over. He may want them placed upright again, which is not an easy task, or he may want them left where they are. The decision is his, and you must abide by it. (As an aside, a gravestone which has fallen face down may well have its inscription in close to perfect condition, whereas those either side in an upright position may have the inscription weathered away!).

You will need to reach agreement about what you should do about any vegetation which is obscuring an inscription, (such as the growth of ivy) or even preventing you from getting close to the stone (such as a thick mass of brambles). What are you to do about long grass in front of a stone? By all means offer to clear brambles using a pair of pruning shears (where does he want the rubbish put?), and to carefully clip any long grass with shears. The awkward one will be ivy growth. Some vicars will positively encourage its growth over a stone! Find out. Carefully!

You are not doing him a favour. Don’t try to pretend that you are. You are simply making a record which will be available in the future for the benefit of others. Do tell them where you are going to deposit copies of your work.

Do let them have a note of your name, address and telephone number.

The Churchwarden

Do ask the vicar to let your activities be known in advance to the churchwarden or caretaker. Take an interest in this person, and find out who he or she is. Make a point of following this up and make an appointment to meet the churchwarden to explain, all over again, what you intend to do. The churchwarden can be a great ally to you. Rub him up the wrong way, and you are lost. It is the churchwarden who is responsible legally for the fabric of the church and of the graveyard, and rightly, he will take his responsibilities very seriously indeed. Make sure that the Churchwarden agrees with the vicar about the policy regarding brambles, long grass and ivy growth. Do not try to teach them what should be done. It is your responsibility to go along with what they want done.

Burial Records and a Graveyard Plan

There will certainly be a church or cemetery interments record. There may also be an existing plan of the graves. The register of burials (that’s the parish burial register) will be lodged with the County Records Office or Archives Office. They may well have the plan too, if it exists. Usually, only the latest burial register will still be at the church. It will usually be held by the Churchwarden. The interments register will have references to grave numbers, and if you are fortunate to find the plan, it will contain those numbers too. What is the importance of having the interment registers? Well, it can help you to identify at least the name and date on a poorly preserved gravestone, and it may well give you the basic information about an adjacent grave without a stone. (The stone may have been removed, or, as is often the case, there never was a stone as the relatives could not afford one). If the burials register has not already been indexed, you may offer to do this at the same time as providing the monumental inscriptions records. You may even like to offer to get the register onto computer format on disk too. After all, the two documents, the burials register and your record of inscriptions may well be used in conjunction with each other in the future by others searching the records.

Other records

You may be able to obtain other records than the burials register itself. Each burial was paid for, and there will be a receipt book. In addition there will be a Deed of Grant for a grave, particularly in the case of town council cemeteries.

This receipt, of which there should be a copy at the Archives Office, shows the “section” of the cemetery – XH.15. – and the grave number 18. It also shows that it is a “Class C” grave. The grave itself has no stone, as the burial was during wartime, and it could not be afforded. This particular receipt is in respect of my mother’s sister, Dorothy Eva Mills, who died from tuberculosis at the age of 20 years, in 1941.


Town cemeteries are no different to churchyards. They are just larger and contain more graves! Lots more! However the principles of preparation are essentially the same. You must obtain permission and agreement, you must find out if the inscriptions have already been recorded. There will be a burials register and a plan, just as in a church. In fact, the likelihood of finding an indexed plan is very high indeed. If you are able to put over that you are making a very serious study, then you are likely to get co-operation, complete with copies of the registers on loan, and also a copy of the plan. People, particularly those in the Archives Office, will realise the importance of the task you are taking on, and will give you every possible support.

The photograph is of the plot referred to above for Dorothy Eva Mills, at the Northern cemetery, Bulwell, Nottingham. There is no headstone, as this burial took place during wartime, and the family could not afford a stone. By referring to the cemetery plan we were able to find the actual plot. My mother had not been to the grave since the burial of her sister in 1941, as she had not been able to find it.

War Memorials

Usually, little needs to be done regarding permission to record the inscriptions on these memorials. But, you should still try to ensure that no-one has already done the work.

If you are looking to record monumental inscriptions, ask the British Genealogy Forum to see if they have already been recorded and save yourself the hassle. All you need to do is sign up for free and ask away!