Graves in 19,000 churchyards in England are to be digitally mapped in a seven-year project that will be a boon to people researching family history.
The Church of England is to launch a free website next year that will eventually list every grave memorial in every churchyard in the country.
The ancient church of St Bega on the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake in Cumbria is the first churchyard to be scanned by surveyors using sophisticated laser equipment.
“This impressive national project will make a huge difference to those researching family history, as well as easing the administrative burden on parishes,” said Andrew Rumsey, the C of E’s lead bishop for church buildings.
“It will improve management of burial grounds, and make information more fully accessible than ever before.
“It will soon be possible to visit almost any Anglican burial ground in the country and see in real time the location of burial plots. For those researching at distance in the UK or overseas, the digital records will place detailed information from churchyards at their fingertips.”
The new free web-based record system is due to launch next spring, with the option to subscribe to additional services.
Funding for the programme has come from Historic England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Caring for God’s Acre, a charity which helps care for burial grounds, and genealogy research websites.
Atlantic Geomatics is conducting the survey using bespoke software. Up to 10 sites a day will be surveyed using backpack-mounted laser scanning equipment, GPS and cameras. Taking tens of thousands measurements every second, the surveyors will then process the data to create accurate maps of each churchyard.
As well as capturing details of burials, the online interactive map will detail biodiversity in churchyards, including ancient trees and plant life, and green technology such as solar panels.
Television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? and websites devoted to genealogy have fuelled interest in family history. The Society of Genealogists has 11,000 members, and there are family history groups and clubs in most towns in the UK.