Basics on Cemeteries

Basics on cemeteries and memorial inscriptions


Australia

Burial Registers and Cemetery Records

Historically in New South Wales, both the government and religious groups administered burial grounds. The state government granted the land for church cemeteries and general cemeteries, but administration of burials was devolved to denominational trustees. Thus there are cemetery records in a number of locations: State Records, church archives, local councils, and historical societies and libraries.

State Records holds registers that record gazettal dates for cemetery land grants, as well as correspondence and plans relating to the original surveying of cemeteries. Church archives often have registers that record consecration dates for cemeteries and church yards, along with parish registers and the occasional cemetery trustees' minutes.

Administration of general cemeteries was transferred from the trustees to local Councils in 1969. Existing cemetery records, such as plans, burial registers and sometimes trustees' minutes, were transferred at this time. Due to fluctuating interest of cemetery trustees and haphazard record management, many Councils inherited few records.

Cemetery and burial registers contain information such as surname, given name, occupation, date of burial, age and religion of the deceased, and sometimes information about the undertaker, monument erected, and relatives. Burial registers for operational cemeteries are held with the current administrator, such as the local council. Where cemeteries have closed, burial registers - or at least copies of them - are often held by church archives, SAG or the state library.

SAG hold copies of a large number of burial registers. Often information from burial registers is published in conjunction with cemetery monumental inscriptions. Most of the burial registers in SAG's collection are part of the Joint Copy Project operated by SAG with Sydney's Mitchell Library and the National Library of Australia. This project microfilms church registers. Check our online library catalogue for our holdings. 

The most comprehensive published summary of burial registers and indexes can be found in:

  • Nick Vine Hall, Tracing Your Family History in Australia: A Guide to Sources, 2nd ed., The Author, Albert Park, Victoria, 1994.

Vine Hall has also produced an index to parish registers:

  • Nick Vine Hall, Parish Registers in Australia: A List of Originals, transcripts, Microforms & Indexes of Australian Parish Registers, 2nd ed., The Author, Middle Park, 1990.
Camperdown Cemetery
The Society has a wonderful collection of resources for Camperdown Cemetery, one of Sydney's most important Anglican burial sites which opened in 1849.   An eight page Finding Aid to this collection is availble for download here
Cemetery Transcripts and Monumental Inscriptions

As many family historians have discovered, inscriptions on cemetery monuments hold a wealth of information. As well as names, birth and death dates, you can find out about places of birth and death, occupations, religious persuasion, family relationships, qualifications, memberships and social commitments.

SAG volunteers have been very active in transcribing and publishing cemetery transcriptions for cemeteries in metropolitan Sydney. Inscriptions of over 236,500 headstones in Sydney's Rookwood, Macquarie Park (previously 'Northern Suburbs'), Waverley and South Head cemeteries are all available on CD-ROM, with others on microfiche. Various other societies have also published transcripts in book, microform or CD-ROM format and SAG actively collects such items. Overall we currently have transcriptions to about 400 cemeteries in our collections. Many such volumes have been name-indexed in the Australasian Genealogical Computer Index (AGCI), which is widely available in libraries. Copies of most AGCI items can be obtained from SAG using our retrieval service.

Most genealogical and historical societies also have a collection of unpublished cemetery transcripts relating to their local area. SAG's Primary Records collection includes such items, as well as photos of particular headstones, cemetery plans and even a headstone itself! These items are indexed as set out on our Primary Records page.

A useful index to the location of cemetery transcripts is:

  • Martyn C H Killion & Heather Garnsey, Cemeteries in Australia: A Register of transcripts, Australasian Federation of Family History Organisations, Sydney, 1994.
Undertakers' and Monumental Masons' Records

The records of defunct undertakers and monumental masonry businesses sometimes make their way into library collections and should not be overlooked. They often have useful information about the deceased and family, along with details about the funeral or monument. There is no comprehensive guide or index to these records. State libraries often collect these business records in their manuscript collections, and SAG has a useful collection of records, both originals and copies on paper and microfiche.

List of undertakers' records
  • Charles Kinsela Funeral Homes, Sydney, 1865-1982 (microfilm) [SAG] & (originals) [Mitchell Library]
  • Joseph Medcalf, Sydney, 1881-1900 (microfilm) [Mitchell Library]
  • T J Andrews, Sydney. (microfilm) [Mitchell Library]
  • Walter Carter Pty Ltd, Funeral Director, 1896-1912. (microfiche) [SAG]
  • A list of Funerals Conducted by J W Chandler Pty Ltd, Undertakers, Macquarie St Windsor, 1930-1987. [State Records, Western Sydney]
  • Register of undertaker James Fleming, Dungog (photocopy) [SAG PR 4/11,116.]
  • John Price & Son, undertakers. (Bathurst?) [Mitchell Library]
  • Coffs Harbour Undertaker's Index [SAG]
  • Shakespeare & Co (Dubbo) from 1935 (originals) [Dubbo Family History Society]
Monumental Masons' records
  • H J Larcombe, Lidcombe [SAG]
  • Frederick Arnold, 1879-1977, Sydney [Mitchell Library]
  • Thomas Browne, Maitland [Mitchell Library]

Britain

SAG has an extensive collection of monumental inscriptions for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales that have been transcribed and published. These cover both churchyard memorials and civil cemeteries. Transcriptions can be particularly useful to researchers unable to visit a site for themselves, or where an inscription is no longer legible or the headstone has not survived.

However, a transcription can be no better than the state of the headstone and the care or skill of the transcriber allows; and certainly no better than the information given to the monumental mason who inscribed the headstone. For example, it is not unknown for a death certificate to quote one county of birth, the headstone another, and each of them wrong! Try to confirm independently all information recorded at death, as inaccuracies abound.

Transcriptions can be contained in printed books or pamphlets, microform or CD-ROM. Usually a full transcription of headstones will be given, as well as an index to included surnames - or surnames and given names. Sketch plans of the cemetery may be included to facilitate identification of particular sites. In the case of church cemeteries, memorial tablets in the church and possibly war memorials may also be included. In the case of some Welsh cemeteries, the opening frames on the microfiche are 'Help for the non-Welsh reader'!

Consult our online library catalogue to establish whether we hold material of relevance in your research.

While the information on a headstone can be a valuable genealogical tool, there are several reasons why this information may not be available to you:

  • The deceased never had a headstone - perhaps there was no-one able or willing to pay for one
  • The headstone was illegible or missed when the cemetery was transcribed
  • The headstone no longer existed
  • The cemetery no longer exists
  • The headstone was in a cemetery yet to be transcribed

A useful publication, The Confederation of Burial Authorities directory of cemeteries and crematoria in the UK [SAG ref: M2/10/81], contains information collected in 1996/7. All local authorities were contacted for information about the cemeteries and crematoria they provide, the address of those sites and the year in which the site opened. 90% of local authorities made returns and as a result the book includes information on over 2,800 sites.

Irish gravestone inscriptions: a guide to sources [SAG ref: R2/10/5] is a survey of almost 900 cemeteries in Northern Ireland. The book covers Antrim, Armagh, Londonderry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Louth Monaghan, Tyrone and lists the name of the civil parish, the name of the cemetery and the denomination.