Religious Records and Cemeteries (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

What Outside Sources To Contact...(cont.)[edit | edit source]

Churches and Religious Records[edit | edit source]

In England, in the late 1200s, clerks were hired to maintain church and land records. It was not until 1538 that parish records were ordered to be kept. Clerical members of the church were always encouraged to keep good records. Likewise, in the New World, this practice continued. We usually consider church records very accurate, since they were completed as the event happened.

Problems arise however, such as where the writing is illegible or names were spelled phonetically. They include such instances where: the writing is illegible and often names were spelled as they sounded. If the clergyman was of another ethnic background, he may have spelled the name with that ethnic flair. Some names were completely misunderstood and therefore recorded inaccurately. Eventually, the entry will give you the information you require, or suggest clues as to where to look for verification elsewhere.

For various reasons, there are often gaps in church records. If a fire destroyed the church, the registers may be lost forever. You will also find that some denominations have separated and/or merged and some have completely disappeared over the years.

Each denomination had its way of recording events. In the case of baptisms or christenings, use caution. If you are looking at a denomination that practiced adult baptisms, and the birth date is not indicated, do not assume that it necessarily occurred a few days previous to the baptism.

Churches also registered the deaths or burials of their members. These records can be invaluable to find the birthplace of European ancestors.

Marriages were also recorded in church registers; witnesses attending a wedding were often relatives. Church confirmation records should also be checked if they are available. Depending on the country or the religious denomination, such records can contain details not only about the confirmed, but in some cases, the father.

Another source of information at the church may be the membership lists and historical biographies written about the church and its members. You may find stories containing facts and lifestyle information not recorded elsewhere. The current edition of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches is the best source to locate the central headquarters of most denominations.

Remember that people did not always remain in the same denomination all their lives; disagreement with a minister, no church of original denomination in the area, or marriage to a spouse belonging to a different church, may explain the movement from one denomination to another.

Cemeteries[edit | edit source]

Cemeteries can hold a lot of genealogical information and a visit to the cemetery can be a pleasant experience.

Years and years ago families were not very mobile, so it is normal to find either a family or private cemetery or a public cemetery with many of your ancestors’ graves. Once you have discovered where your ancestors lived, check with local historical societies to find out which cemeteries existed at the same time period. The cemetery records may also be indexed.

When you visit cemeteries, take care to preserve the gravestones and do nothing that may cause damage to them. Many markers may be fragile and hard to read because of the effects of weather, age or lichen.

Here are some tips to observe when reading headstones:

Do not use detergents, soaps, vinegar, bleach, or any other cleaning agents, no matter how mild. Do not use shaving cream, chalk, graphite or dirt to read inscriptions. Do not use stiff bristle brushes, wire brushes or any metal objects to remove lichen from a stone.

Use only a soft brush and plain water for all cleaning. Soft, natural bristle brushes, whisk brushes and wooden popsicle sticks are acceptable if used gently. Do not attempt to remove stubborn lichen. If the cemetery has a custodian, check if you can take a rubbing. Make sure the stone will not crumble before you start. Completely cover the inscription with a large sheet of newsprint and rub gently with a soft charcoal stick or soft lead pencil. Do not use waxy crayons or marker pens that will permanently stain the stone.

If you plan to use a camera to record the headstone, write down the inscription as well in case it does not all show up on your picture. If it is hard to read try using aluminum foil or a white piece of paper to reflect the light across the surface and create shadows. Copy the gravestone inscription exactly as it appears including all punctuation.

Gravestones can be hard to read, not only because of age, but also because of the style used for the inscription. If you incorrectly read an inscription, it can cause you much confusion later on. Take care! When you’re writing the inscription and you cannot make out part of it, use a dash to indicate each letter or number you cannot make out. Do not guess at what you think it says; write down what you can decipher and indicate your guesstimates on the side.

Common information found on a gravestone is: the name of the person, date of death, date of birth or age at time of death and the name of the spouse or the parents. Sometimes, you will also find an inscription providing clues to the deceased’s personality. The style of the gravestone, either very simple or very elaborate, or somewhere in between, can give you some insight into the financial position of your ancestor and their family.

A visit to a cemetery can help you confirm facts you’ve already found and provide you with materials, such as pictures and personality clues, that you can use later when compiling your family’s history.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.