Old English graveyards to be geo-mapped and digitised for family researchers

Most of us in Oundle walk through the graveyard at St Peter’s Church regularly, but how often do we stop and look at the graves and consider the history of the people buried there and what life was like for them? Probably not very often.

Over time, headstones decay along with the memories. Eventually, it gets to the point that the headstone is near enough illegible and the only hope of finding out about a grave is through records meticulously kept by long passed church officials, gathering dust in archives.

In his book Oundle Wills and Headstones 1820-1858, David Parker maps the
location of burials in the churchyard and records the inscriptions on
the now hard-to-read, weathered stones.

Previously, searching for such records in archives was the only way for genealogists to track down family graves. Sites such as Ancestry and Find My Past have made this record finding process a lot easier, with the digitisation of many of the paper churchyard records.

However, it is still the case that once a genealogist has identified which churchyard a person was buried in, they have a challenge establishing where in the churchyard the person was buried. At this point, vicars and rectors often receive many emails with names and dates requesting any information they might have.

Thanks to the meticulous work of David Parker, many of the burials at St Peter’s have already been recorded and published in a book along with transcriptions of deceased Oundelians’ wills. He has also attempted to transcribe some of the decayed inscriptions, which is very tedious work.

However, the manual process of researching gravestones is gradually set to change with the introduction of a new futuristic piece of technology as part of a scheme to digitise Church of England graveyards.

The Church of England has partnered with Cumbrian-based surveying company Atlantic Geomatics. The project has begun with the Dioceses of Carlisle and Truro. From there, graveyards will be recorded diocese by diocese.

Whilst the operator walks around the graveyard carrying the kit like a rucksack, the laser scanners, GPS and cameras take tens of thousands of measurements every second, recording inscriptions of graves, as well as their position within the graveyard and the positions of other features such as trees. They will also photograph all the visible headstones.

This new technology does come at a significant cost. This project has been funded by Historic England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, genealogy websites, and Caring for God’s Acre, a charity whose objective is to ensure that graveyards are cared for.

Due to this funding, the information collected will be published on a free website which the Church of England will launch next spring.
No doubt many genealogists will welcome this digitisation drive. It will further expand the accessibility of genealogy as well as ensuring that the headstones survive natural decay, albeit virtually.

Robert Foskett
December 2021