Monday, August 22, 2016

Using church and cemetery records in genealogy research

Researching church and cemetery records can be very helpful when you are looking for genealogical information.  It is important to remember that these records were not kept with genealogy in mind. In the case of cemetery records, they can be very sketchy and in most cases, they were kept by the sexton of a cemetery. Often the most difficult thing about them is trying to locate who has them.

Church Records


When it comes to using church records, how useful they will be will depend on what denomination your ancestor was. If your ancestor belonged to a church that does infant baptism, then most likely there will be a baptism record. Some churches keep more detailed information than others.

 In the Roman Catholic Church records, there will be the parents' names, the infant's name, the name of the godparents, the name of the priest or deacon, the date of the baptism, sometimes the date of birth and depending on the country where the event occurred, such things as current residence, people who attended the baptism and some occupational information about the parents. Most records, however, are quite sparse.

Anglican Church records of baptism do not include godparents or dates of birth. Many other churches do not include this information either. It can be very disappointing to find the record but discover it has very little useful information.

Some churches took a parish census and these records can be interesting. Before the advent of civil records, in many places, the only records available are church records. Because of this, many historical societies and local genealogy groups have gotten together and transcribed these records into books that can be purchased or in some cases can be used for research at a local library or genealogical society.

Marriage records are also kept by churches and in the days before a marriage license was needed, they may be the only record of the marriage. Most records only include the names of the two parties involved and whether or not they were of legal age. There was no reason to ask where they were born or who their parents were, at least most of the time. As with every rule, there are always exceptions. 

In Catholic parish records in Canada, they did ask for parents almost all of the time. The information about legal age is also useful, this is different from place to place so you need to understand whether it means the parties are over 16 or over 21 for instance. This information can help you guess the ages of the parties involved in the marriage.

There are some churches which do not allow access to their records by just any interested party. They are after all private and were never intended to be used as public information. It is always best to call well in advance of any intended visit to see what the policy is at the church you are interested in. If they don’t allow visitor access to the records, do they have staff that can or will do the research? Not all records are held at the parish level, some have been placed in central locations. This is common in England, Ireland and also some diocese in the Catholic Church. 

Cemetery Records


This really is a crap shoot. Some cemeteries have kept meticulous records and others have almost none. You may or may not be able to locate an ancestor’s grave. Even if you do find a record of a burial, depending on when it occurred, there may not be a headstone and if there is a headstone, there is no guarantee that it is at the location of your ancestor’s grave. For many reasons, stones have been moved to make it easier to mow the grass, to make the cemetery more aesthetically pleasing or just to clean things up.

Beyond just helping to locate a grave, cemetery records do not hold much that can be helpful to genealogists. They will tell who is buried in the grave, maybe. This may be of use in identifying if this is indeed your ancestor especially if you have a common name. Some cemeteries will have a burial book that actually gives the cause of death and the actual date of death as well as the date of burial but again there is no guarantee that either of these will be in the record.

Where to find cemetery records can always be challenging. If it is a church cemetery, then you need to contact the church first. If it is a private cemetery, check with the town hall for information on where the records are stored. Just finding the records can be one of the biggest challenges.



When it comes to primary sources for genealogical information, church and cemetery records can provide some helpful information. Just be aware of who was providing the information to the church or the cemetery and be sure that it fits with information that you already have. You never can tell, you could get lucky and that is what every genealogist lives for.

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