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Brits, Religion and 19th century burial

As we (plural) are half Brit, I spend a lot of time wandering around UK websites digging up ancestors. Some of the most interesting bits of information come out of church registers — take, for example, this two page spread from the register of burials in the West Drayton parish, Middlesex (county), London in the years 1886-1887.  There are 16 entries here.

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For each burial there is a name, a residence, the date of the burial, the age of the deceased, and the name of the person who conducted the ceremony. Note that the entries are not made in the order in which the burials took place.

The late 19th century was not a healthy time in England. On these two pages the ages break down thus:

Age 60 or older: 4 burials
Age 40-60: 3 burials
Age 20-40: 3 burials
Age 1-20: 2 burials
Less than one year: 4 burials (25 percent)

Maybe the most interesting thing here is the fact that some of the burials have a notation that reads buried under the act of 1880. This is a reference to a law with this catchy summary:

After passing of Act of 1880 notice may be given that burial will take place in churchyard or graveyard without the rites of the Church of England.

(You can read the whole thing for yourself here if you are feeling brave.) Which is to say that before 1880, non-conformists could be denied burial in the church or graveyard of the town in which they lived. A non-conformist was anybody who wasn’t Church of England, so that Methodists, Roman Catholics and all other misguided Christians had to go elsewhere to find eternal rest.

After 1880 the burial could take place on consecrated land and the ceremony could be performed by a non-conformist minister, but official notice of any plan to bury a non-conformist had to be reviewed and passed by an official of the C of E.

In these two pages, the non-conformists all happened to be Roman Catholics (the ceremonies were performed by an “RC priest”). This is very useful information if you’re trying to track down an elusive 19th century family member.

These registers are generally very legible and clear, which makes up (to some degree) for the fact that the English government offices that handle vital records will only release official, certified copies of birth, death and marriage certificates — and a hefty fee of about $25 a pop. In the States most local governments will issue a non-official ‘genealogy only’ copy for a couple dollars. Apparently British genealogists have been trying to convince their government that it would make sense for them to institute this kind of policy, but it’s not clear where the negotiations stand. Unfortunately.