With over 1200 in Northern Ireland, graveyards are an integral part of the Irish landscape. However, each graveyard is unique and was created in its own particular set of circumstances. Each will have its own unique collection of headstones.
Graveyards can be found in a range of different settings. Many are in remote parts of the countryside, near the top of a mountain or even on a small island. Others are within towns, hemmed in between commercial and residential buildings.
Some graveyards in NI have been opened in the last ten years. Others have been in use for over 1,000 years. Approximately 300 graveyards in pre-date the sixteenth-century Reformation. Because of their antiquity these graveyards will generally have been used as places of burial by all denominations (though historical and demographic factors may mean that there is a preponderance of one denomination in a particular graveyard). Many of these graveyards are now closed for burials. In some there will still be a functioning church, usually a Church of Ireland church.
The practice of erecting an inscribed stone marker dates from the early seventeenth century and was introduced by the settlers from and arriving in vast numbers in at this time.
The memorials found in graveyards vary considerably. Wealthier families, for example, often built mausolea. An inscribed slab, often of marble, would be affixed to the wall of the mausoleum and this would recount the deaths of those buried beneath it.
At the same time memorials were by no means the preserve of the wealthier members of society. Many gravestones commemorate people from fairly humble backgrounds; these memorials will be much simpler in appearance.
The variety in the style of the headstones is one of the things that mark out an old graveyard. Each memorial represents an individual example of the craftsmanship of the stonemason. Contrast this with a more modern cemetery where the headstones are arranged in neat rows and have a manufactured uniformity.
For many people graveyards are regarded as sad, lonely and morbid places that are best avoided if at all possible. For others, however, graveyards provide a way to discover information about bygone days, places where the dead are brought to life by inscriptions on headstones. A graveyard is among the most accessible sources for studying the history of a local community. Gravestone inscriptions have long been valued by historians and genealogists.
The information recorded on gravestones varies considerably. Some will bear the name of the family interred beneath the stone and nothing else. Others may contain detailed information about several generations of one family. A date of death will usually be given for each person named on the gravestone. Ages will be frequently given. This allows for a year of birth to be estimated. The relationship between the individuals recorded on the gravestone will often be indicated: ‘son of’, ‘husband of’, ‘sister of’ etc.
For genealogists the inscription recorded on a headstone is a vital piece of information that assists research into the history of a particular family. From a much wider perspective, collectively the inscriptions from all the headstones in a graveyard make it possible to investigate the history of a community.
Graveyards are open air museums where it is possible to walk among the tombstones and examine at first hand art and sculpture from a bygone age. Many gravestones, particularly those dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth century, have elaborate carvings on them. These can include symbols of death such as a skull, crossed bones, hourglass, bell and coffin. Other tombstone decoration includes the use of heraldry. Trade symbols and symbols associated with religious orders and secret societies also appear on gravestones.
Many gravestones will provide the residence and/or the occupation of the deceased. In some cases this will not be a recognised townland name. A memorial to a soldier may state where he had fought. Some inscriptions will even give the cause of death, particularly if it was the result of military action or death at sea in a shipwreck. Many memorials will have an overseas connection of some kind. A headstone may have been erected at the cost of a family member living overseas or it may commemorate a family member who died abroad.
Graveyards are special places where the memories of the dead can be commemorated by the community they served. Public memorials have been erected by communities to express their appreciation of the service and achievements of individuals, notably medical doctors. War memorials perpetuate the gratitude of the community for those who served and died for their country.
The Ulster Historical Foundation has a vast collection of gravestone inscriptions. Recently these inscriptions have been digitised as part of the History from Headstones Online project.
The website also features case studies of individual graveyards as well which act as examples of how to use the information in a burial ground to study the history of a local community. Graveyards are an important part of our heritage and ought to be treasured as such.