THERE is one simple place to start your genealogical research and that is with a known fact.
Good research technique is to always work backwards from the known to the unknown.
To make an assumption such as descent from a famous person, and then work forward expecting to find yourself in their family tree, is often a recipe for frustration and time wasting.
The standard process to finding your ancestors is to step backwards, one generation at a time.
And the easiest way to start is by writing down your own name, date of birth and birthplace. Follow this by writing down the full names of your parents, their dates and places of birth, and the date and place of their marriage. Do the same for your four grandparents.
You may find, even at this early point, that there are some gaps in your knowledge. Now is the time to ask your parents or nearest relatives for any missing details. Check if they have copies of their birth or marriage certificates, which will help confirm the information.
Using official records, such as birth and marriage certificates for each generation, it is possible within Australia to follow a line back to the first half of the 19th century quite quickly.
Generally, in each generation, a child's birth certificate provides the names, and date and place of marriage of the child's parents. This enables a marriage certificate for the parents to be obtained.
The marriage certificate contains the date of marriage, name, age and birthplace of each party, and their parents' names. This enables a birth certificate to be obtained for the bride and groom.
The key here is that each certificate contains details relating to two generations, not just the subject child or couple.
Each state in Australia has its own system for issuing certificates.
It should be noted that the accuracy of information in certificates was reliant upon a number of factors including accurate recording of details and transcribing of information for the official state registers.
Errors, misspellings and even omissions occurred so it is wise to be aware that the certificates themselves are not infallible.
If you know where an ancestor was baptised or married, it is possible to consult the church register. The advantage of the church register over an official certificate is that the entry in the church register was recorded at the time of the event, using information provided by those closely involved - this is called a primary source.
As well as official records, look out for family documents such as a family bible, birthday book or photographs with an annotation on the back.
These could help you fill in the gaps and may enable you to track back a number of generations.
As you start finding information, it is important to keep a record of what you have found and where you found it.
Cemetery records can, in some cases, be the only record of a person's death.
Particularly in the 19th century, death registration was not as rigorously enforced as it is now, and so an isolated headstone might record the death details for your long-forgotten ancestor, which were never registered, and never published in a death notice.
The vast majority of cemetery records, however, are an addition to the official registration. On the surface, they may provide only confirmation of information already known without adding anything new. But digging deeper can sometimes provide some interesting extra information.
Where can I find cemetery records?
There are a number of places to find cemetery records:
- The local council (if they are responsible for maintaining the cemetery)
- Burial registers at local churches or at some cemeteries
- Local historical or family history societies' collections or indexes
If the local council is responsible for maintaining the cemetery and selling the plots, then they will have a register showing those buried in the cemetery, with at least name, date of burial, section and plot number.
The smaller cemeteries will usually have a map at the entrance showing the denominational layout, so having a plot number from the council register should enable a gravesite to be found, even if there is no headstone.
Burial registers are maintained by churches to record funerals carried out.
They are not death registers - in many cases only the date of burial is recorded, not the date of death - but can help prove a person was buried in a particular cemetery if this occurred (say) before the local council took over responsibility for the cemetery.
Many churches still hold burial registers dating back to the 19th century, but others have deposited their registers in the denominational archives.
Large metropolitan cemeteries usually have on-site offices for each denomination, and these offices can often supply you with a map showing the precise plot you are seeking. Other smaller metropolitan cemeteries may have one office covering all denominations, and provide the same service.
Indexes created by local societies can be a very quick way of locating a gravesite. However, such indexes sometimes suffer from the limitation that they are created by members indexing from the headstones rather than from the burial registers - so no headstone, no index entry. Fortunately more and more indexes are being created with the co-operation of the local councils, so that headstones and the burial register can be combined.
Many societies still publish their local cemetery records in printed format, and these can find their way into the collections of other societies, so your local society should be high on your list of places to look.
- Australian Cemeteries Index (www.austcemindex.com) contains photos and transcriptions of more than 300,000 headstones (from all states, but primarily NSW) and covers more than 850 cemeteries - many of them small country cemeteries.
- Australian Cemeteries (www.australiancemeteries.com) lists most Australian cemeteries with links to known resources such as online data, indexes, photos, and lookup services.