What Does It Mean?

Final Thoughts

by Mike Fitton

Mike Fitton is a resident of Bracebridge and an honorary member of the MPSGG. He is very knowledgeable on English research and has spoken at many of the club meetings.

You are examining an old English burial register. Robert Brown, the deceased, was partly buried. What does this mean?

Burials, obituaries and memorial inscriptions tend to be the most overlooked of personal records, certainly in comparison to birth and marriage records. Yet we are all better known by our contemporaries, who can record more information about us, at the end of our lives rather than at earlier stages.

It is true that some earlier burial records are brief and perhaps cryptic, but there are many very interesting pieces of information in burial registers. One of my 7x great grandmothers was called Susan Fielden. She was born in 1623, when life expectancy for a woman was perhaps 40 years, and burial records were very brief. I would never have found her burial, except for an entry in 1717, which recorded her burial as Susan Fielden aged 94.

Burial entries also contain descriptive nicknames, such as those of Silver Will Greenwood and his brother Rough Paul Greenwood, These are a great help in identification. Then there are editorial comments such as for Jonas Houghton “who was ill drunke and cursing last Monday”, and James Lord, “a very good man”. Unusual causes of death were also recorded. Drownings, except in coastal areas, were often specially noted, as were unusual diseases. Plague or cholera epidemics were not noted because they were so frequent, but the sudden increase in the number of burials per week is a clear clue to the causes.

The location of a burial indicated status. The gentry and more prominent merchants were buried in the church, as evidenced by memorials on the church walls or floor. Lesser folk were buried in the churchyard, the more prosperous on the sunny side of the church. Paupers were buried on the bleaker north side of the church; and in the farthest corner of the churchyard, unbaptised and stillborn children, suicides and executed criminals could be found. In some parishes, specific sections of the graveyard were allotted to specific communities -within the parish.
Everyone living in the parish had a right to burial in the parish churchyard - after all, they paid tithes to maintain it. After the Toleration Act of 1689, Quakers, Jews, Roman Catholics and other non-conformists were permitted to establish their own burial grounds. An old Quaker cemetery is interesting - they did not believe in having monuments of any kind, so it is just a small open field. But the majority of people still chose to be buried in the parish churchyard.

My 2x great uncle Abraham Fielden was notorious for not attending church, preferring to hold meetings at his house on Sunday mornings, at which the politics and science of the day were discussed. When he died, his family demanded burial in the churchyard, with no religious service. This was accomplished over the strong objections of the parish priest, and duly recorded in the burial register.

The first public cemeteries not operated by churches appeared on London in 1827. A law passed in 1850 permitted public cemeteries everywhere. The churchyards around the country had already been overfull for at least a generation.

Parish registers of burials are sometimes not very informative before 1813. Some registers mixed burials with marriages before 1752 and with baptisms after 1813. The government foolishly imposed taxes on the recording of burials in registers between 1694 and 1706, and again between 1793 and 1794. While there were no changes in the number of burials, few people paid to have them recorded in the registers.

The oldest headstones in church yards date from about 1650, and only wealthy people could afford them. Most other people had simple wooden crosses with engraved boards, which rotted quickly in the damp climate. The headstones we can still see today are generally from 1750 onward, and many of them are in poor condition. They were normally erected a year or so after death, once the excavated soil had settled, and the information on them is often a younger generation’s mistaken recollection of information received years before. People lied about their ages for various reasons, and then were stuck with the consequences. Many local genealogical groups, and the Society of Genealogists, have transcripts of MI’s.

Obituaries are like headstones. The wealthy who were well known in towns with newspapers, left obits. The earliest surviving newspapers were published in London and the larger cities, starting in the 1700s. By the mid- 1800s, most communities had newspapers, and most deaths received at least a brief comment, even for late residents of the poorhouse. If your ancestor died unexpectedly, in a factory explosion, a train wreck, or by murder, the local newspaper will have pages of interesting information.

And what about Robert Brown who was partly buried? This did not mean that they left his feet sticking out of the ground. It was possible to express by dying wish or by Will, that one’s heart be buried in a chosen location, even though one’s body was buried locally. This was essential before embalming and refrigeration reached the present level of development, if one wished to be buried several hundred or thousand miles distant. Whatever was buried in the local graveyard was considered a partial burial.


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This article is the last in a series of 25, published in the Muskoka & Parry Sound
Genealogy Group newsletters over the past twelve year. I have enjoyed putting the
information together, and hope that it has been useful to you, the reader. I will continue to write occasional articles for publication, but like so many of our ancestors, it is time that this series was “well buried”.

This article first appeared in the November 2003 newsletter, Volume 19 - Number 2