Sunday, February 26, 2012

52 Weeks of Abundant Genealogy - Cemeteries


Kilmuir Cemetery Isle of Skye where many MacDonald ancestors lie.

A Short History Of Burials and Cemeteries

Burial places, practises, and monuments are an important resource for family historians and historians alike. From an archaeological perspective, they provide us with a great deal of insight  into social history and the way in which our ancestors lived. Whether our ancestors were ancient Celts, Vikings, Romans, Christians, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim their burial customs all involved some type of religious ceremony, rituals or rites and were a memorial or tribute to the dead. Vikings, for example believed that after death they joined the gods in a life similar to the one existing. They prepared the dead for the afterlife by burying them with all of the things they would require, including the tools of their trade, food, pottery, jewellery and clothing. Stone markers were placed in a ring shaped to resemble a boat, which was believed to be the way the Vikings envisioned that the dead travelled to the afterlife. Much significant information regarding the way in which the Vikings lived has been determined from their grave sites.

A Viking Burial Site in Sweden. Stone Markers resemble a Boat.

In many cultures, the poor, who were unable to afford a proper burial, were interred in mass graves however these burials still embraced rituals such as mourning, wakes and ceremonies. Many of our modern burial customs originate from ancient and Pagan times, rites which stemmed from fear of retribution from the ancient gods. Many burial places and monuments are a testament to the position a person occupied society.  The Egyptians, for example, built great pyramids to honour their kings. These monuments are a record of cultural practises as well as changes in societal beliefs and are an invaluable record of our past. Many of the artifacts which have been discovered in ancient burial places are now housed in museums as a tangible reminder of our past. 

Egyptian Pyramid

Early Christians were buried for the most part, in unmarked graves. After the 15th century a demand emerged in England, for holy burial in Churchyard Graves. These were generally small and soon became crowded and resulted in the practise of burying the dead upon the dead. The 17th  century witnessed a shift in focus to the 'individual' as well as a trend towards the desire to preserve and protect the memory of a person deceased. In the 17th and 18th centuries, originating in Italy, France and Sweden, it became the practise to bury the dead in 'burial places', 'graveyards or as they were once known, 'bone yards'. These graveyards eventually became referred to as 'cemeteries', a word derived from a Greek word for 'sleeping place'. Early graveyards were situated in a place central to communities. In the early 19th century a move towards new and more commercial and larger burial places emerged.  Cemeteries were built in large park like locations on the periphery of towns and cities and with them emerged a trend towards more elaborate tombstones. Whilst many of the poor, still continued to be buried in unmarked graves, tombstones or headstones, began to hold inscriptions. Some were simple reminders of a person's name and the age when they died, whilst others carried extravagant inscriptions or epitaphs as well as decorative symbols such as a dove or a wreath.

Headstones in the Churchyard of St Mary's Islington where my 4 times g Grandfather is buried.

Relevance of Cemeteries Today

Humour on a Headstone.

The  cemeteries with which we are familiar today, can be regarded as  museums, which hold a wealth of information for family historians. As well as being an historical record of religious practises and  architectural and sculptural styles and trends, cemeteries are a treasure trove of information about communities and cultures. Importantly for the Family Historian, many headstones are the key to significant details about the lives of individuals. In some graves there are several generations of families buried. Inscriptions on headstones range from names and dates, to humorous stories, photographs and sometimes, detailed anecdotes about the deceased. Each and every headstone and grave in a cemetery has a story to tell, through its symbolism and inscription, its cultural significance, its simple design or elaborateness. even by its telltale absence.  It is those stories which are so poignant to family historians and which make cemeteries a compelling source of fascinating information about family members as well as the communities they were a part of.

Matthew Bowden's Tombstone in Tasmania is  a Family Historian's dream.

A Cemetery which has Personal Meaning to Me

Cooroy Cemetery 
Over the years, as a Family Historian, I have wandered through many cemeteries in search of my ancestors. I have also wandered through cemeteries just reading the headstones of other people's family members. Without exception, I always experience a quiet 'at peace' moment when I discover the grave of an ancestor. Even before I take in the information provided on a headstone, there is a moment of 'connection' and in that moment my ancestor feels very real to me. At the graveside, I feel that I am in the presence of my ancestor.  Every grave tells a story. When I found the grave sites of my  paternal great grandparents, John and Elizabeth McDade and discovered with disappointment that they had no headstone or marker of any kind, I felt saddened. Then I realised that when they both die within several years of each other in the early 1930's, that their deaths had occurred during the depression years. There was probably little money in a working class family for such luxuries as an inscribed headstone. This is something that family members are now setting about to rectify.

My favourite cemetery to visit is the Cooroy Cemetery where lies the grave of my great great grandparents John and Hannah (Gair) Morrison. John Morrison is an ancestor who I have put much effort into researching. I recently wrote about his 'wealth for toil' in the Twigs of Yore, Australia Day Blogging Challenge. In John Morrison, I had discovered a hard working man who built up great wealth and who through no fault of his own had lost almost everything. He had moved his family from Sydney where he had been a prominant builder and rail carriage contractor and after working as a rail carriage foreman for 10 years in Ipswich, had spent the last 7 years of his life quietly living in the town of Cooroy, inland from Noosa in Queensland. John and Hannah Morrison both died in 1927. I knew from a cousin who had visited Cooroy some years previously, and who had removed many weeds from their grave, that both John and Hannah were buried in the Cooroy Cemetery. 

The Cooroy Cemetery is situated on a hill on the outskirts of the town of Cooroy, in a most pretty location, surrounded by trees. The entrance to this cemetery, appears to have once been situated at the bottom of the hill and is now at the uppermost part of the hill. From what looks like the original entrance the grave certainly would have been located in a prominent position, however where it lies now, it is downhill from the present entrance to the cemetery. As I walked from grave to grave on a very hot day, I almost gave up hope of finding the Morrison grave. So many graves were missing headstones, some were unmarked and others I noticed were in such a state of disrepair that an inscription was difficult or impossible to read. Finally, I came across a very large double grave with a headstone which was almost indecipherable. Despite many years accumulation of lichen on the headstone, as I closely scrutinised it, I found I could just make out the word Hannah and Morrison. My excitement grew as I read the faint name Tait after Hannah's name. My great great grandmother's maiden name was Hannah Tait Gair. Tait was the surname of her maternal grandmother Elizabeth Tait, from Cramlington in Northumberland where Hannah was born. I knew immediately that I had found the Morrison grave. 

I could just make out the word Hannah and Morrison

There was much significance in the finding of this grave. As a Queenslander living in Sydney, I had felt little connection to the state of NSW for most of my married life. Finding that my 2 times great grandfather, John Morrison, a Scotsman by birth had immigrated to Sydney from Northumberland with his wife Hannah and settled in Strathfield, Sydney delighted me. That their daughter, Florence, my great grandmother, was born there, endowed me with, an immediate connection with the city that I  live in. I visited the beautiful buildings in Sydney that John Morrison built and has he has left as his legacy, including Chapter House at St Andrew's Cathedral,  Gothic Style Churches and Strathfield Council Chambers. To be standing before his grave and that of his wife Hannah, who's name one of my daughters bears as a middle name was quite emotional.

My husband and I spent some time quietly weeding the grave which was bigger and more substantial than I had expected. I felt pleasantly relieved that someone had afforded them such a lovely resting place. Unexpectedly, my husband, David announced that he would like to clean the headstone. With his expertise as a heritage Architect, he felt that the stone beneath the lichen was Granite. I was surprised at his suggestion as we had not arrived at the cemetery dressed suitably to undertake such a task. I quickly became enthusiastic and  undeterred by the hot weather and growing lateness of day, we drove to the local hardware store in Cooroy, in search of  the appropriate cleaning products to attempt to restore the headstone. Once back at the grave site, David set to work with my help.

As the years of grime and lichen gradually washed away from the headstone, we were truly speechless. Slowly, before us, what had appeared to be a plain dirty headstone with the appearance of grubby concrete,was transforming into a beautifully  black granite headstone engraved with the shape of a Bible or book. I cannot begin to describe my emotions as the intricately detailed tassel, pictured below, began to appear in the middle of the shape of the book.

Inscriptions appearing on the Headstone 

The Headstone with lichen removed.

Unfortunately we ran out of daylight to clean more than the front of the headstone, however, we were able to clean enough of the stone on which it rested, to ascertain that it was made of red granite.

Headstone on the Grave after cleaning.

The final touches to the grave of John and Hannah Morrison

Since my husband and I cleaned the headstone on John and Hannah Morrison's grave, I have returned three times to visit the Cooroy Cemetery in Queensland.  I feel privileged to be the keeper of the grave of my great great grandparents as there are no family members in Cooroy to care for the grave. I have come to 'know'  my ancestors not only through my research, but more significantly through lovingly taking care of their resting place, nestled on the side of a hill amongst the trees in Cooroy Cemetery.  Along with my husband David, visiting and caring for the grave on our annual holiday is now one of our favourite holiday outings.


Cooroy-Noosa Genealogical and Family History Research Group
The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History  edited by David Hey
Gravely Tasmanian: A friendly guide to Tasmanian graveyards Vol. 11 By Joan and Buck Emberg
Monuments and Memorials edited by Beryl Henderson [History of Funeral Customs]

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