Tuesday 24 June 2014

Notes in the Burial Registers

Prior to the regulations instituted by Parliament for the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in Britain, in 1837, the main alternative to an actual death certificate was a parish burial record. In most cases only the name of the deceased and the date of his burial were entered. Generally one could assume that the death was only up to a few days prior to the burial but rarely was that event recorded directly.

Occasionally a vicar might make notes in the registers which might shed light on the manner of death or the relationship of the deceased to surviving family members. Such comments can add an important piece of information about the individual but they almost never make it into an index.

Unfortunately, not all vicars chose to make notes so records may not be complete in an area over several decades. Rev. Duke Yonge (1750-1823), of Cornwood parish, was very diligent in leaving comments in the registers. He served as the Cornwood vicar from July 1793 until his own death in December 1823. For over 20 years, we have a wonderful record of the causes of death.

In the burial registers of the four parishes in Southwest Devon I look after, as an Online Parish Clerk, only a small percentage of entries have notes about the deceased persons:
·         Cornwood – 702 of 4,616 entries (15%) between 1685 and 1993;
·         Harford – 153 of 639 entries (24%) between 1708 and 1933;
·         Plympton St. Mary – 1,778 of 15,963 (11%) between 1603 and 1963;
·         Plympton St. Maurice – 1,699 of 4,897 entries (35%) between 1616 and 1958

All of the registers for my parishes have been transcribed and the information put into spreadsheets; so I can sort and look at various items to see whether trends are present (did deaths increase in number or decrease during any period), whether certain diseases were present at various times, what family connections there might have been or whether other events affecting the populace occurred.


Most of the entries have to do with who the deceased was related to. Many notes reference that those buried were the son of, daughter of, wife of or husband of a surviving member of the family. That is exceedingly helpful when trying to reconstruct families whose members had similar names to those of other families. It was not unusual for children to be named after their parents or grandparents so children often had the same names as their cousins.

Notes might be made of the individual’s occupation or employer which, again, is useful in determining to which family they belonged.

Those with more affiliations to nobility or senior members of the community were particularly noted. See my blog post titled, Nobility and Celebrity as recorded in the parish register, published 8 October 2013


Of the diseases and epidemics that hit the area, cholera occurred in two main episodes in Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice – July-September 1832 and June-July 1849. Few deaths occurred in Cornwood during those two periods, and no cause of death was recorded, so it appears the disease was confined to the area surrounding the village of Plympton. 

Smallpox killed nine people in Cornwood in 1770-71. The disease was not recorded in either of Plympton St. Mary or Plympton St. Maurice, however a large number of children and infants died between 1769 and 1771 leading one to wonder if smallpox played a role in their deaths.

In Cornwood parish, twenty-eight people died of phthisis (tuberculosis) between 1799 and 1823. Very likely more suffered as well both before and after these years, which was during the time Rev. Duke Yonge was vicar, but the causes of death were not noted. Again no such cause of death was recorded in the adjacent parishes of Harford, PS Mary and Plympton St. Maurice which might suggest the disease was confined to Cornwood.

There was an outbreak of scarlet fever in Plympton St. Mary from December 1850 to May 1851 during which 10 people died, nine of them very young children – two from each of three families, and six from the same village.

Other Information or Events

Sometimes the manner of death was an accident such as drowning, falling, from a fire or, more recently, in a car crash. In these cases one might want to look for a coroner’s report to get more information.

If someone just passing through died, a note might be written that they were a “stranger” to the parish. Those buried may not even have been named. I wrote about some of these entries on 25 August 2013 in a blog titled Some Unusual Endings.

Quite a large number of people (230) were buried in Plympton St. Mary between 1886 and 1953 “without the rites of the church” which might indicate they either had not been baptized in the Church of England, baptisms could not be confirmed or the individuals were of other religions.

In the Plympton St. Mary burial register, of the total 2,793 burial entries between 1922 and 1973, the actual grave locations were recorded for 1,058 individuals by the various vicars. This is very useful information for descendants seeking to find where their ancestors were interred.

Major conflicts were the cause of death of many individuals, both as soldiers, who were carried home for burial or regular citizens caught up in conflicts. Another of my blog posts, titled Military References in the Parish Registers referenced some of the older entries. During World War II, the dockyards of Plymouth were a major target of the German Luftwaffe. Between 1940 and 1944, there were 59 bombing raids resulting in the deaths of 1,172 civilians and another 4,448 injured. According to the notes in the Cornwood register, four of those killed in Plymouth were brought “home” to Cornwood for burial. The reason for their passing was noted in the burial register.
Portions of pages 83 and 84 of the burial register for Cornwood parish (number 2764/7) showing the names of four individuals killed during air raids in Plymouth in 1941.
(copyright owned by the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office)
Whenever possible, it is very useful for family historians to consult the actual documents where events were recorded about their ancestors. The old parish burial registers can be particularly valuable to add colour and explanation to a family story.

Baptism images reproduced here are used with the kind permission of the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office (PWDRO), the copyright-holder. Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.