Making A Scale Plan of the Graveyard

A Scale Plan

A plan of the churchyard, cemetery or burial ground should always be made. This is the first job in the field. It is not a difficult job to make an accurate scale plan. A good starting point is an Ordnance Survey large scale plan (the old 25″ to 1 mile plans are ideal). These plans are still, however, too small to record each grave, and an enlarged copy of the area of the churchyard may need to be made. Note that it is better to try to obtain an edition more than 50 years old, as no royalty needs to be paid for making a copy. These are often available at a local library. If you can’t obtain a photocopy, why not make a tracing of the churchyard, its boundaries and any buildings, don’t forget to add an accurate scale line, and then enlarge your tracing using a photocopier.

In an ideal world, and for anything but the smallest burial ground, you can have one copy which shows the whole area, and then separate enlargements of each section of the graveyard on A4 size paper, on which you will be recording the actual grave positions and the numbers which you allocate to them.  Keep a “virgin” master, and only use copies for recording details in the field.

Decide beforehand in what sections you want to divide up the graveyard. Mark these on rough copies of your plans. The section divisions may often be pathways. Give each section a reference code. The actual grave numbers can then be fitted into these sections when you come to do the actual survey of the site. You may end up with lettered sections and then numbered graves within each section, so that an individual grave may finally have a reference such as E34, for example. At this stage, however, you need only decide on the sections.

Organising a Team

Taking on a large project alone can be a daunting task. Even a small churchyard with 200-300 graves is not easy, and will take time to complete.  You may decide that it is better to enlist the help of a team to record the inscriptions. Dedicated and capable volunteers prepared to commit themselves are not easy to find. Furthermore, they will need some degree of “training”. The more people that there are involved in the project, the harder it becomes to keep the project together. Mistakes in recording can easily creep in too. Having said that, helpers can overcome the enormity of the task. Some will be out there at every possible opportunity, others on a more occasional basis.

Making a Plan of the Graveyard

Before you can start work, you need to have a scale plan of the graveyard.  This will be used to mark grave numbers, so the plan will need to be large enough to contain a rectangle for each grave, and for each rectangle to contain a number. For anything but the smallest graveyard you will probably need a master plan, showing areas, and then several larger scale plans for each separate area. Fortunately, most graveyards have natural sections, divided by major pathways. Even the largest scale published plans (in the UK – Ordnance Survey Plans 1:25,000) cannot show enough detail to be worth while. You are going to need to make your own plans. Having said that, you don’t need professional equipment to survey and plot out a graveyard, and you don’t need to be a surveyor. All you need is a little time and a fine day.

A long measuring tape

You will need a 30 metre (or 30 yards) surveyor’s tape. It can be quite expensive to buy, but you will find one at a local builder’s merchant. It is well worth the investment. Alternatively, you might try contacting a surveyor or builder and asking if he has an old one which can be mended.

Some pegs and thick string

You will need a few wooden pegs, even large tent pegs will do, and a large roll of thick orange nylon twine, again from the builder’s merchant. With this simple equipment you can make a pretty good job of accurately surveying a churchyard. It is done a little at a time, and in sections, with the parts adding up to make the whole completed plan, which can be drawn to scale on A4 sized paper. Some people, when starting to survey a site, start by laying down one reference line from one end to the other, or start from one boundary. However, unlike surveying an empty field, we usually have a really good reference structure in the centre. The church! We can use its walls as base lines, and work outwards from there.

Where to Start

The church building

The first job, then, is to measure the church itself, complete with any abutments and porches etc. This is an easy task, by working around the outside, but it will need two people. As a quick double check, make sure that the measurements along one side add up to the same as those on the other!

The outside walls of the church are going to act as our reference lines. All other measurements will be distances out from those walls at 90 degrees.

You may be fortunate to have a straight main path up to the church from the gate. many churches do have a straight pathway. This path is going to be your second major reference line. If the path isn’t a straight one, it doesn’t matter, as it can still be plotted relatively easily.

The main path

Let us consider a straight main path first. Stand on one edge of the path and sight along its edge to the church building. Have your partner mark where the line of sight hits the building itself. Measure along from a prominent corner of the building to this point and note this measurement. Effectively you are saying “if this edge of the path were to continue to meet the church wall, this is where it would meet it”. If the path is at 90 degrees to the church then fine! You could simply plot the line of the path very easily on paper. Similarly, if the path runs parallel with the church wall then it would be just as easy. Carefully measure the length of the path to the gate of the churchyard, and also measure its width.

Unfortunately, life isn’t always as simple as this. The path may lead away at an angle, or it could be a curved path. What we need therefore, is a straight reference line from one corner of the church building to the boundary wall. Effectively we need to “project” one of the walls outwards to where it meets the boundary. This line, instead of the path itself, then becomes the reference line. This is where the orange twine comes in handy. Get one person to hold it against the wall of the church, whilst you unroll it, walking backwards out to meet the boundary wall. The knack is to keep sighting along the line and the church wall to make sure that your line is a “continuation” of the wall. Try to peg down the line at each end once you are sure that it is dead straight. Measure the exact distance from the church wall to the boundary.

It is quite important to get this first main reference line as accurately positioned as possible, as other lines will be set out at 90 degrees to it later on.

Measure the other main reference lines out from the corners of the building (B, C, D, E, F, G) to the boundaries as in the diagram.

All other dimensions can now be measured outwards from known points on these lines. (the green lines in the diagram, for example). Some of them are to the boundaries, others to features such as pathways etc.

Furthermore, you can now measure accurately out from these reference lines to actual grave plots.

Once you have a general survey like this, plot it out on paper to a convenient scale. It is a good idea to have an overall plan like this, and then decide on “sections” of the graveyard, and then draw a separate plan, to a larger scale, for each of these sections. You can plot the actual graves onto these separate diagrams. Sections are best defined by using natural features such as pathways etc.

You will find that it is not uncommon to have two graves with a space for two or three between them, especially in older sections of the graveyard. Either the stones have been removed, or the relatives couldn’t afford a stone. But if there are two stones with the same surname, and a space between them, the chances are, that the missing grave could also be of the same family.

Give each section a reference letter. Then each grave within that section can be given a number. For example, the graves in section A would be numbered A1, A2, A3 etc. Plot out the graves in each section, draw them onto your plan and number each one. Don’t forget to number graves which do not have a headstone. It is as important to record the “missing” ones as it is the ones with headstones.

These are the grave reference numbers that you will be using in your records. If you are to be having a team of people working on recording the inscriptions, it will be a good idea for you to make some tags to mark each grave number on the ground. Plastic plant labels (the sort you stick in a plant pot) will be ideal for this purpose. It will save any confusion on behalf of those doing the recording. Don’t leave it to chance. Decide on the grave numbering first, before you start the recording, not as you go along.

Draw out the plans for each section at home. Keep the master copies carefully, and make some photocopies for use in the field. It doesn’t matter so much if they get mud, rain or grass stains on them.

You are now ready to pay some attention to organising people in the field.