Adapted from: Recording and Analysing Burial Grounds © Harold Mytum and the Council for British Archaeology, 2019, 2020
Completing a successful survey depends on organisation and planning, diligence and commitment. It is often desirable to spread various stages of the work through the seasons, and, for larger projects, perhaps over several years. It is therefore essential that consistent procedures are applied so that the final end product justifies the effort expended. There is an ideal sequence to the work, but there can be some variation on this depending on the expertise, equipment and time available.
The first requirement is to have a graveyard to record. This may be the local churchyard or cemetery, or one more distant which seems of particular interest. In order to appreciate the scale of the task, and therefore whether it is viable both practically and in terms of the information which can be recovered, it is necessary to carry out a preliminary assessment.
Estimate how many memorials there are in total, and what proportion are difficult to read; check in overgrown areas, and do not overlook small, fallen or moved memorials. Look at the range of memorials in terms of the content of inscriptions, types of memorial and decoration, which centuries are represented, and roughly in what proportions. Note if there has been memorial clearance in some or all areas and, if possible, see to where they have been moved. In this way it will be possible to assess the potential of a burial ground. A more detailed visit will be necessary prior to recording to decide exactly what is to be attempted, but this can only usefully be done after permission has been granted and other background research completed.
Logistical factors also need to be considered, such as how much vegetation clearance may be necessary, and availability of shelter in time of heavy rain. Which areas are being used for contemporary burial and where graves are well tended need to be noted, as sensitivity will be necessary when working near these recent grave spaces. Some graveyards and cemeteries manage their grounds maintenance to maximise the ecological benefit, and this can mean parts of the area may have tall vegetation for parts of the year; if this is the case, it may not be possible to carry out monument recording at those times. It is unfortunately necessary to bear in mind personal security for recorders in some urban cemeteries.
All burial grounds are owned by some organisation, and although they are usually open to the public it is still necessary to obtain permission to carry out a survey. There is usually a notice board at the entrance with details of management and ownership, often with an address or telephone number. Contact should be made preferably some time ahead of the intended survey, and perhaps a site meeting arranged if there are any questions about the project. Usually there are no problems, and those responsible are delighted that an interest is being taken in the heritage for which they are responsible. You need to find out to what extent any vegetation can be cleared, and if it is acceptable to peel back grass to read covered parts of stones. Those managing burial grounds which have areas set aside for wildlife will be able to advise when access to the memorials is easiest, and when cutting will take place. If you are doing a detailed plan, you will also have to explain about the survey grid.
As burial grounds differ in their management structure and previous history of work, who should be approached will vary from project to project. It is better to have made too many enquiries and contacts than too few. It is also important to find out if any of the records made will be of use to the authorities. They may appreciate a plan, a list of those commemorated, a copy of the report when it is finished, or even a full set of all the records. Clearly if there is a major cost of reproduction then this needs to be budgeted for.
There is normally no restriction as to when a survey can take place, but it is best to avoid times when services are being conducted if the burial ground surrounds a church or chapel used for worship. Whilst services are of course most likely on Sundays they can occur regularly on other days. It is also very important to check that no funerals are planned, so regular contact needs to be maintained throughout the period of the survey. It is not appropriate to be carrying out graveyard recording during a funeral service, whether it is in the church or chapel or during any interment in the burial ground. Leave a contact telephone number with the burial ground manager so that fieldwork can be postponed at short notice if there is a funeral and interment, though it may be possible to work for most of the day, ensuring that no one is working around the time of the service.
It may also not be possible to do recording in some graveyards on wedding days because of the disruption to photographers and the distractions to recorders from guests. Unlike funerals, however, weddings are planned well ahead, and so it should be possible to obtain a list of dates from the church or chapel covering several weeks if not months.
It is important to discover if any survey has already been undertaken of the burial ground, and whether there is an existing plan of the graveyard. Church and chapel burial grounds may have a plan, but many do not, particularly for the older graves. If one does exist, it may not be complete or to a set scale, so it should be checked. It may be possible to obtain a copy of the plan to use as a base for the study and even if inaccurate this may be useful in the interim before a measured plan is made.
Most cemeteries have extensive records, including detailed plans of all the burial plots. These form a useful source of information, though some only show the numbered grid of burial plots and do not mark features such as paths and trees. In such cases it can be quite difficult to use the plans in the field, but they are of great assistance in analysis at a later stage.
It is also worth checking the local library and record office as well as the burial ground authorities to see if the inscriptions have already been recorded. If this has happened, a copy can be made and used to check against the stones, the transcriptions being incorporated into the more extensive record suggested here. Other forms of records which can be invaluable for analysis are discussed elsewhere.
Before beginning the survey, it is necessary to define the aims of the project and so prioritise the information to be collected. In Part 1, many interesting themes which can be examined using evidence from graveyards have been mentioned, and in Part 3 the basic elements of the proposed recording form are laid out, though there is plenty of room for choice in what to record and at what level of resolution. Part 5 explains how the information collected can be ordered and processed to reveal patterns which can be interpreted and throw light on our past. Whilst it is possible to just use the form as presented here, and then obtain meaningful and interesting results, it is worth thinking about what most interests the recorders and trying to ensure that material collected will be of relevance to their concerns.
Graveyards are sensitive and emotion-laden places, and it is important that behaviour is always in keeping with the setting. Care needs to be taken with walking over marked grave plots, and no recording should be undertaken near anyone visiting a grave. Often people will stop and ask what is going on, and they are usually very happy that the memorials of which they are so fond are being recorded. They can often supply illuminating information about those buried in recent times, and about the masons and funeral directors that work in the area.
Whilst it is certainly not necessary to maintain a funereal air whilst recording, it is insensitive to be shouting and laughing, or larking about in the burial ground. This needs to be impressed on younger and more boisterous members of the team, and it is better to record for shorter blocks of time when concentration can be maintained than go on too long and have any problems. Consideration needs to be given to smoking in the graveyard, and certainly no litter of any kind should be left behind.
In all cases it is vitally important that the utmost sensitivity be kept when recording takes place to avoid upsetting local people or the authorities. For example, it may be wise to have lunch breaks outside the churchyard, rather than give the impression of casually picnicking on graves. Radios should not be allowed into the graveyard, and it is generally not wise to bring dogs, though owners may be able to tie their animals up in a suitably discreet location.
It is important that local people who may see the work going on, and other interested groups who may have valuable knowledge and experience, are made aware of the project in its planning stage and kept informed of progress when it is under way.
Very little specialist equipment is needed to carry out much graveyard recording. A complete list is given separately. All the items are self-explanatory, or they will be discussed where relevant below. It is very easy to lose items in the grass, so brightly coloured pencils, rubbers, pencil sharpeners and hand-tapes are worth obtaining, or all the items should be kept together in a small bag or box. Some items are needed for each recorder; others, such as the compass for measuring orientation, are more expensive and can be shared. Recording by rubbing and photography will probably not be undertaken by many people at any one time, so there is no need for large supplies of wax crayons or cameras on a normal survey.
For an ordered and effective record of a burial ground, every memorial must be identified and given a number. Before this can be done, it may be necessary to undertake careful reconnaissance of overgrown parts of the graveyard. It is important to be aware of the ecological implications of any clearance, and when permission is being obtained for the work this is an important matter to discuss. It may sometimes be necessary to leave some areas for recording in the winter or early spring when vegetation has died down, though the recording of many stones in cold weather is to be avoided unless it is an emergency situation.
Begin the numbering at an obvious point, and number along rows where possible. If there is an existing graveyard or cemetery plan, do not use its numbers as this can take much longer than creating your own. At a later stage, correlate the various records, but remember it is likely that some monuments may have been moved or removed since the original plan was made. Often cemetery plans of plots do not easily correlate with monuments now found on the ground.
It may be advisable to mark the numbers of the graves on small white garden tags and place them by each stone. This can help with identification, but it can also cause problems. Tags can be moved either by wind or unhelpful visitors to the burial ground, and they may also be taken away or dispersed during grass cutting. Marking stones with chalk is generally unwise, as it can cause offence, and the chalk will wash off in the rain. It is therefore safer to rely on a sketch or accurately drawn plan to identify stones.
Before any recording can start some sort of plan is necessary. Ideally, this should be a copy of an accurate survey, but a sketch plan can be quite sufficient. The plan must be annotated in a way which allows memorials to be identified on it. It can be helpful to indicate the name of the first person commemorated on some of the stones, and to use simple symbols to differentiate between types of memorial. It can be surprisingly difficult for a person to use a rough sketch plan produced by someone else, so it should either be quite accurate or produced by the individual who is allocating recording tasks and who will then keep the plan and refer to it.
Whether working alone or in a group, there has to be a system to the process of recording the stones. It is best if recorders work alone or in pairs. Single recorders are the most efficient, but it can be more fun to record in pairs, and certainly this can be a real help on large monuments (where assistance is required with measuring) and those where the inscription is difficult to read.
It is essential that one person is responsible for allocating memorials to be recorded by each member of the team; if not some memorials will be missed out and others recorded twice. The person allocating should have the sketch map, and they should take the recorder to the first stone and indicate which ones they are to record. In this way there can be no confusion.
Each recorder or team should be given a group of memorials to record. In most burial grounds this can be an easily appreciated block such as a row, but sometimes it has to be an arbitrary block such as a set of five to ten stones. It is better for morale if the blocks are not too large; there is a sense of achievement when one assignment has been completed and another can be requested. Alternatively, if too few are given out at a time, the person doing the assigning is forever being asked for new allocations. The recorder should write down the numbers of the monuments they are allocated, and it is safest if they also note down several of the names of the deceased, for example of the first, middle and last memorials they are to do, so that they can ensure they have not left out any stones or somehow become confused as to the order. This may seem highly unlikely with rows of memorials but, in reality, the rows are less clear on the ground, and not all burials seem to be in rows. It must also be made clear which foot stones are perceived as going with a particular headstone. These will not have a separate number but should be recorded on the headstone’s form. Others might be regarded as independent memorials and will have their own individual number. If the detailed plan has already been prepared, copies of this (or the relevant portions if it is large) can be given to each recorder, and the blocks of stones highlighted on it.
It is best if all allocated blocks can be finished by the end of the day, otherwise there will be a scatter of incomplete blocks in the burial ground which can be difficult to find again the next time. Therefore, towards the end of the recording session it is best if those recorders who finish first go and help others complete their blocks. The actual recorders should fill their names in on the forms, but they should be given to the person allocated that block of numbers so that they can hand their set over complete and in numerical order.
It is a good check if the person allocating numbers keeps a running list of the blocks of numbers given out, with the name of the recorder set against each block. Then it is clear which numbers have been allocated, and to whom. At the end of the session the forms can be gathered in, put in numerical order, checked against this list, and any errors sorted out. If this can be done at the burial ground, most problems can be resolved before leaving that session; otherwise a list of queries needs to be drawn up for resolution at the next visit. If there are several recorders in the team, the person allocating memorial numbers should usually not attempt to do much recording but should concentrate on checking the numbering and helping with any questions.
All memorial records should be checked by someone other than the primary recorder. It is soon easy to judge if the measurements are correct, and the text can be looked over again. The coded information explained in Part 3 can also be confirmed, and any queries noted can be dealt with if possible. It is useful to keep a checklist of problem memorials which may need to be revisited, for example at optimum lighting conditions, or for some rubbing to be undertaken to recover details of text or decoration.
Particular monuments may be overgrown, and a decision has to be made as to how much they should be cleared. Here aesthetic, ecological and gravestone management issues all need to be considered. Ivy is a common and in some senses appropriate covering for memorials, but if all the leaves are stripped off this should really be sufficient to allow recording; do not pull off living stems as this can cause the surface of the stone, onto which the ivy is affixed, to come away and cause considerable long-term damage. If it is considered desirable by the burial ground authorities that the ivy be permanently removed, then it can be cut off at its roots and allowed to die off before being removed some months later. Moss may also be removed in some cases, but the same concerns about protecting the surface of the stone apply. A covering of vegetation can work to preserve or destroy; the covering can protect from acidic rain and from frost, yet it can also break up the surface and pull apart different structural elements of more complex monuments with its roots. Each case should be judged carefully on its merits, and decisions on such clearance need to be made within the longer-term management plan for the burial ground. If necessary, ask advice from the Diocesan Archaeological Advisor who can be contacted through the Secretary of the Diocesan Advisory Committee, whose details will be held by the incumbent. Much sensible advice is given on graveyard monument conservation in Strangstad (1988).
Monuments have often sunk into the ground, and part of the decoration and inscription may be below ground level. Epitaphs and masons’ names or initials are often low down on the stone. If at all possible, the missing information should be recovered with limited excavation at the face of the stone. Turf should ideally be cut and peeled back rather than being removed in sods which may not so easily stay in place or take root again. Any soil that is removed should be placed on some thick plastic or in a container so that after reinstatement there will be no sign of activity. Any finds of fragmentary human remains should not be separated, but just left in the soil. Other significant artefacts should be retained, being bagged and labelled with the monument number so that their find spot is known. These should be notified to the Diocesan Archaeological Advisor. In most cases it should not be necessary to dig to any great depth. The soil has often protected the memorial against erosion, so marginal designs and text are often best preserved on these parts of the monument. Recording of these parts of the stone should certainly be undertaken wherever possible. It is essential that the excavation, recording, filling in and reinstatement of the turf should all be accomplished in one day. It may therefore be necessary to postpone examination of partially buried stones to the beginning of a day, and to do so when any necessary rubbings and photographs can be taken, otherwise the excavation and cleaning may have to be done more than once.
In some churchyards the headstones have been laid flat, in others table and chest tombs dismantled and the tops laid on the ground. There are also 19th-century memorials which have associated body stones set on the ground. In all these cases, as well as with proper ledger stones, turf may have grown over the monument. In a long spell of dry weather, such memorials can often be identified as parch marks in the grass, but they can also be located by sticking a metal pin such as a knitting needle or surveyor’s ‘poppy pin’ through the turf. By using a sharp knife such as a modelling or Stanley knife, the turf can be cut and peeled back to reveal the stone. As with burial from sinkage, so the covering of turf can preserve much of the detail of these monuments. They should be recorded as normal, but then carefully covered again.
Burial grounds do offer a few hazards for the unwary, and it is worth being aware of potential risks. It is not normally sensible to carry out graveyard recording alone, but should this be necessary, let someone know where you are, and inform them when you leave. The most common accidents are caused by the uneven ground, and it is easy to sprain an ankle where a grave has subsided; even some older graves can still be settling decades after their last inhumation. Care should be taken, also, with leaning or collapsing monuments. Where there is undergrowth to clear, thick gloves may be needed to deal with brambles and nettles, and it is always possible that a wasps’ or bees’ nest may be uncovered - they have even been known inside tombs! A small first aid kit is worth taking out to deal with cuts, scratches, bites and stings. Its location during the day should be known by all in the team.
Personal safety is not a problem in most graveyards, but in certain locations, such as some inner-city cemeteries, this may be a factor which should be considered. Equipment should not be left unattended in a graveyard - it is surprisingly easy to lose items in even quite short grass, and there is also the possibility of theft.
Drawing up a timetable for the recording is helped by some estimation of the length of time needed for each part of the work. Experienced recorders unsurprisingly work much faster than a beginner, but given memorials of average complexity and legibility, 10-20 memorials a day is a reasonable aim for a team of two. Very worn memorials take as long as one’s patience and ingenuity last; modern headstones and cremation plaques can take only a few minutes. Planning even a small graveyard using tapes is likely to take a team of three several days. With a large burial ground the survey will have to be done in stages. The checking of forms needs to be undertaken by those with some experience, and inevitably mistakes will be found on a significant percentage of them. Ideally this process should take place when the graveyard is quiet.
Whilst it is possible to carry out a survey of a graveyard in a few consecutive days, it is likely that repeat visits will be necessary for checking. Also, areas thickly overgrown may be best left for a late autumn or spring recording session (when additional monuments can also be added to an accurate plan). Periodic visits to almost illegible memorials can allow further parts of the text to be discerned in different lighting conditions.
It is best to leave plenty of time for the graveyard recording though getting the bulk of the transcribing of inscriptions and filling in of the forms done in a shorter time is good for morale and prevents the whole enterprise dragging on and never being completed.
The ordering, processing and analysis of information can begin even before all the recording is finished, and certainly before every last detail is resolved. Carrying out these later stages of the work can highlight gaps in the data, and can also put any missing information in perspective. On cool reflection more information may not be worth the efforts involved in trying to recover it.
Carrying out the recording of an average sized churchyard (perhaps 250 memorials) can be achieved single-handedly. The planning, however, would then be difficult to complete accurately, and it is not easy to check one’s own forms. It is a task not to be undertaken lightly as the fieldwork could represent 4-6 weeks’ solid work, including production of some sort of plan and the photography. With even one assistant available some of the time to help with planning and photography, this can be speeded up significantly, and it is easier to keep morale high. The ordering and simple analysis of the data can take several weeks more, depending on what is desired. With a small group of half a dozen people the time scale is rapidly reduced, with primary fieldwork in such a churchyard completed in only a few days.
This list summarises the process of recording and analysis and should help individuals or groups achieve their aims with minimum complication. For some studies not all stages will be relevant, and some can be undertaken concurrently or in a slightly different order, but this is the ideal sequence.