Keep it in the family

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Diane Lund’s ancestors, who died before they were christened, lie in unmarked graves in Crayke churchyard
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Diane Lund’s ancestors lie somewhere in the graveyard but she doesn’t know where

Following my column about Crayke village a few weeks back, I had an email from a reader concerning the the graveyard there.

Diane Lund, from Lealholm, wrote, “My grandparents were married in Crayke Church in 1923. I have a copy of the newspaper report of their ‘pretty wedding’. They went to live in Grandpa’s home village of Huttons Ambo. Less than a year later, on a day they returned to Crayke to visit Grandma’s parents, my grandmother went into labour and gave birth to triplets. John lived for four days, Geoffrey lived for two days and Ronald died after one day. Such a tragedy; no scans, no incubators. The triplets were buried in Crayke churchyard but as they hadn’t been christened, their grave was unmarked.”

What a sad and tragic story, and as I mentioned in that column, people were often buried with no grave markers either because they could not afford a headstone or, as Diane says, because they were not christened. I find it quite sad that their ancestors living today can’t go and pay their respects because they do not know where their relatives’ remains lie.

On a slightly separate but related note, I was doing some research for another project recently that talked about the effect on people whose loved ones have, for example, gone missing, or are lost at sea. According to Professor Pauline Boss, a pioneer into the study of stress on families, if we do not have physical proof that our loved one has died, then our human brain can’t let go. It’s known as ‘ambiguous loss’ and is one of the worst things anyone has to experience. To achieve some kind of closure, we need to see for ourselves evidence of their transformation from life to death.

Churches and graveyards have long been rich sources of information for anyone doing research into their forbears. Graves with inscriptions usually give dates of birth and death, and sometimes they give occupations and details of other family members too. Church of England churches also used to be tasked with holding the parish registers of baptisms, deaths and marriages in what was known as the parish chest.

Parish registers were formally adopted in 1538 when Thomas Cromwell ordered that records of all christenings, weddings and burials had to be kept and stored in a secure chest in the local church. At first, they were written on loose leaves of paper, but it wasn’t very efficient as they could get mixed up, pages could get lost, and the paper could easily disintegrate. In 1598, Elizabeth I decreed that these records be copied on to more robust parchment and transcribed into proper books, starting from the beginning of her reign in 1558. That’s why many parishes today have registers dating back to then, but not before, as the nearly all the loose leaf versions have perished.

I was doing some research into these chests and discovered that at St Mary’s Church, Kilburn, they still have the original wooden chest in which these records were kept. However, the fragile documents have been moved to a more suitable place for preservation within North Yorkshire County Council’s Record Office.

Researching family history used be far more difficult than it is now, as today you can subscribe to websites that offer a huge amount of information and advice on how to do it and where to go. In my dad’s column from 6th June 1981, he says, “People doing research into their family history have to be prepared for long hours of painstaking work in libraries, churches, museums and various other record offices, and on many occasions, their efforts meet little success.” I can imagine that the physical effort may be less these days, but I’m sure, as there is so much more stuff so readily available, that you could quite easily disappear down an information rabbit hole and never come out again.

But it is very satisfying when you do find a nugget of useful material. My dad also mentions in his column that a reader from Buckinghamshire had contacted him asking if he could help them trace some family members who lived and worked in Wensleydale 200 years earlier.

My dad was able to assist because, unbeknownst to the reader, a descendant of theirs lived just a hundred yards away from our house!

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 11th and the Gazette & Herald on 9th June 2021

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