Monday, August 24, 2009

Bury My Bones Where They Won't Stink

A year ago I was roaming the streets of London and riding the Tube to my favorite destinations ... cemeteries.  Churchyards were the first burial places and it is apparent that many of those no longer survive, but London natives and visitors walk over them not realizing that bones lie beneath.  

Under common law, every parishioner and people who inhabited a parish, had a right to be buried in the parish churchyard or burial ground.  While you may see a few gravestones in churchyards, there are many unmarked, unknown graves.  A good example is the churchyard of St. Martin-in-the Fields which is estimated to have 60,000-70,000 burials in the churchyard. That suggests one on top of another in layers.  

Kensal Green, with 79 acres, was established as London's first public cemetery in 1827.  Many followed within the next few years, such as Highgate in 1839.  They were commercial ventures and in the 1850s urban churchyards were closed to burials.  Bodies were also being buried under the floorboards in chapels and school.  As they decayed the stench was overcoming.  A public cemetery would be a better choice for burial. 

Landscaped cemeteries were common in Italy, Sweden and France.  They were adopted in England as public cemeteries in the Victorian period.  The public cemeteries are extremely interesting with various types of stones plus styles of mausoleums. 

The first on my list of "must-see" was the Highgate Cemetery in northwest London.  There are two sections to the Highgate Cemetery, both different and interesting.  The west Highgate Cemetery is only open to tours.  Visitors climb a few steps to be greeted by dank darkness. Adjusting to it, there are gravestones that seem to perch on top of each other, covered with undergrowth, vines, moss and bushes.  A musty, earth smell hangs among the gravestones and only a true cemetery lover breaths deeply to enjoy it.  

Less overgrown cemeteries, such as Brompton Cemetery created in 1840, also contain gravestones that run into each other with barely room to wedge a foot between them.  Ravens perch on statues and the tops of stones, faithfully looking for pieces of food left by passer-bys.  

All of these are peaceful settings.  If you stop long enough to ponder the past, imagination takes over.  You can envision a funeral party, all attired in black, with a horse drawn hearse passing down the path in 1845, bringing a body for burial.  What has happened through the decades to their descendants?  Do they realize where their own are buried?  Or do they care? 

Someday I will return to London to explore more cemeteries, stop and pay respects to those who have gone before.  I may walk through a former churchyard and absorb the feeling of comfort that only comes to those who are obsessed with places of burial.  

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Chasing A Migrating Ancestor

Do you know where your ancestors were going when they gathered up their belongings and hitched the horses to the wagon?  They were not out for a joy ride.  They were most likely out for a long, difficult ride and one that was planned and calculated in advance.  Neighbors, family and friends may have joined them. 

If you like maps and enjoy the study of migrations, you'll enjoy the Migration Trails web site. It opens to a rather simple format with a few options. 

Begin by clicking on Migration Trails and you will quickly be staring at a colorful, large map of the United States.  Trails are drawn in red and numbered.  The largest portion are in the eastern United States.  The numbers on the map are identified with the names of the paths, roads and trails, some of which I am unfamiliar.  If you click on the name of a path or trail, you will be taken to further information, such as a time frame for the trail and the primary nationalities who traveled it.  There is also a listing of counties, with web pages, that are within the trail area.  This is particularly helpful when looking for records left by ancestors in their migration.  Perhaps they stopped off briefly in a county along the way when somebody died. References are also listed which can be helpful in your research.  

From the home page, click on Who Traveled the Trails?.  You can select the nationality that interests you, such as Irish.  The immigration period, favorite port of entry and migration facts are listed, along with references.  Easy, but thorough reading! 

You can also order custom migration maps through the web site.  Knowing the counties along the most likely route that your ancestor traveled may break down research brick walls.  The maps are sent by e-mail.  

I hope this web site grows with the addition of more trails, particularly west of the Mississippi River.  It's a fascinating study and one worth the time in preparation for research.  

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Free Databases for the Genealogist

It looks simple and plain, without any headers or footers or shocking colors and graphics.  Free Databases for Genealogical Searching is limited to just that ... FREE databases.  Stephen van Dulken who maintains the web site indicates that some of the databases are incomplete or a project in the works.  He is of London, UK, so there is heavy emphasis on British sources. However, you will find plenty of links for the United States and other countries.  The topics you can click on are ... 

Archival search engines 
Crime, poor law, litigation
Electoral rolls, poor tax, etc. 
Emigration/Departing passengers 
Immigration/Entering passengers
Telephone directories 

Don't by shy ... start clicking!  I clicked on Burials and discovered many links.  How about a link to European graves in India?  It's right there with Los Angeles County Burial Permits and more. 

Take the time to explore all of the topics and you may find gold ... genealogy gold!