Recording in the Field

So now we get down to the process of actually recording the inscriptions in the field.


A word or two about safety once you start walking around the graveyard. You don’t want any accidents. many graves, especially those with kerbstones (a rectangle of stone around the plot), have a stone cap over the grave. In time this can be undermined and result in a cavity beneath it. Quite often the capping stones are broken, and present a distinct danger if you were to tread on them. Be wary of this. It might also be a good idea to take along a small first aid kit. At the least you will be torn to shreds by brambles and thorns if the graveyard is overgrown.

Be very wary indeed about lifting fallen stones to read the inscription. They are very heavy indeed, and can cause injury. The best way to lift a stone is to lift it onto it’s side edge, not back onto its foot. Two people are required to lift a stone onto its edge, and a third to record the inscription. Gently lower the stone back into place afterwards. Do not think that it is your job to right all fallen stones. It is the job of a professional. Never try to lift the stone up from its head, so that it is in a natural position upright. The chances are that the stone will break in half under its own weight, with disastrous results to both the stone and yourself.

Watch out for things that hurt. You may certainly encounter ants nests, possibly bees or wasps, and possibly even snakes. Our local graveyard is home to probably dozens of poisonous adders during the warm months of the summer. Don’t worry, they won’t literally attack you – they prefer to slide away somewhere safe when they hear you coming, but don’t catch one by surprise, it is then that they will strike. If you know there are snakes around, just shuffle your feet a lot, and makes lots of ground noise. If in doubt, wear wellington boots, even in the summer.

Do take care in the summer to protect yourself from the sun.

Recording a section of the graveyard

Be methodical. Number each of the graves first with plant tags, then record them in numerical order. Always number a grave which has no stone, and make a comment in your record book.

Make records like this:

ELIZABETH/ wife of ISAAC MILLS / October 17 1870 / age 64 / also ISAAC MILLS / September 18 1883 age 71 /
also FREDERICK / their youngest son / April 28 1875 aged 24 / who was interred at Accrington Cemetery / also HARRIET WALKER / eldest daughter / died November 20 1898 age 64 –
Upright headstone. Poor condition.

Use a “/” to denote a new line on the stone. Always use upper case letters for firstnames and surnames as a standard convention.

If there is a bible quotation, or a message of any kind, always record it in full. If there is a note of the stonemason’s name or initials, record this also. If there are any special carvings, angels or whatever on the stone, it it a good idea to make a note of them. Sometimes the stonemason added his own insignia instead of his name.

If you wish, make use of abbreviations for standard phrases such as ILMO for “in Loving Memory of”, etc. A list of abbreviations are listed elsewhere on these pages.

There may be several different types of stone marking a grave:

  • upright headstone
  • a footstone (usually with just initials, but it may contain more)
  • kerbstone (a rectangle around the grave)
  • cross
  • pillar
  • small obelisk
  • chest (literally a stone chest on the ground)
  • flat stone (a stone laid flat on the ground intentionally)
  • urn
  • vase
  • etc.

Below: it appears that there are only two stones in this part of the graveyard at Bunny, Nottinghamshire. In fact all the others are superbly preserved and beautifully decorated slate stones laid flat on the ground

Always record what type of monument it is. Sometimes there may be more than one associated with a grave, for example, a headstone with a kerbstone, or a headstone with a footstone. (In may older graveyards, the footstone may have been removed from its proper place and leant against the back of the headstone).

It is quite common also to find stones propped up against the church wall or the boundary wall. They are obviously not marking an actual grave, but may have been moved there either because they fell, or because some misguided person in the past has decided that the churchyard should be tidied up. In such cases note the site of the stone, and note that it no longer marks the actual grave. Some stones have even been removed and laid down to make pathways. (Unfortunately, some of these may even be laid face down and cemented in place, in which case there may not be much you can do to record the inscription). Horrendous examples of this type of churchyard vandalism are unfortunately all too common.

It is very important to record the inscription absolutely as it is written. You may recognise that there are obvious mistakes, but nevertheless record it exactly as it is. Stonemasons do make mistakes. By all means add a footnote to the record describing any suspected mistakes. If you are lucky enough to have a copy of the burials register, and the name on the stone is spelled differently to that on the register, then assume that either or both could be wrong! Never record what you think it should be – record what you see. Just as it is possible for you to make mistakes when recording the inscription, or when writing it up later, so could the stonemason have made a mistake, or even the entry in< the register could be in error. It does happen.

I recently saw a gravestone where the mason had obviously made lots of mistakes:

“MILLIS” which should have been “MILLS”
“MELLINSAM” which should have been “MILLS”
“aged 18 years” which should have been “aged 81 years”
“of Bunney” which should have been “of Bunny”

All of these mistakes had been obviously filled in and re-engraved. With time and weathering, the result was a mess. Interestingly, on this stone at the bottom were the words “Re-engraved by his affectionate grandson – George”. I dread to think what the family must have made of the errors at the time, or how the mason could have made such mistakes!

In this case I recorded the corrected inscription, but also made a full note of the original inscription. If you are in any doubt, ask someone else to give you a second opinion on the inscription. Some inscriptions are very difficult to decipher. Always go back and double check your recording. Better still, have someone else do it for you. It is very easy to make mistakes. Complete a whole section of the graveyard before progressing onto the next. Be methodical. Be sure to keep your notebooks safe and dry.