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Handle burial records with care

01 July 2022

Mark Ireland has reservations about plans to map digitally every graveyard in the C of E

Diocese of Carlisle

The churchyard at St Bega’s, Bassenthwaite, in the diocese of Carlisle, is surveyed last year

The churchyard at St Bega’s, Bassenthwaite, in the diocese of Carlisle, is surveyed last year

EVERY diocese in England is being asked to take part in the National Burial Grounds Survey, an initiative from the Archbishops’ Council to digitise all the funeral registers held by the Church of England, and to create an online plan of every churchyard and parish church, and an online photo of every tombstone and memorial plaque (News, 3 September 2021).

The idea of digitising all records held by parish churches has obvious attractions: giving families, parishes, and dioceses easier access to information, and each PCC a handy digital copy of the records for their parish. This survey has been organised by the Archbishops’ Council in partnership with Atlantic Geomatics (AG) and two other companies: FamilySearch, and My Heritage.

I have serious reservations, however, shared by many other archdeacons, which I have raised with my former colleagues on the Archbishops’ Council.

FIRST is the involvement of the Mormons, a sect not recognised as Christian by any of the mainline Churches. The actual scanning of records is being undertaken by one of AG’s partners, FamilySearch, which presents itself as a family-history group, with the strapline “Bring to life your family’s history by exploring the lives of those that came before you.”

FamilySearch is owned by the Mormons, however, and if you explore the FamilySearch website, via a page on “family values”, you very quickly come — within four clicks from the home page — to a page in which you are invited to ask for a home visit from Mormon missionaries “to offer you prayer and comfort from the Scriptures”.

FamilySearch will be able to publish on their website all burial records gathered as part of the NBGS after three years. This will sow confusion in the minds of many who may have sought a Church of England funeral for their loved one, but may not be aware that a body calling itself “The Church of Jesus Christ . . .” has very different teaching on death and resurrection from the mainline Christian Churches. Many of those who are seeking information on family history are working through issues of grief and loss, much longer than three years after a death. As a priest, I want such people to get in touch with their parish priest for information. I do not want to outsource their care to an agency of the Mormon Church and expose them to its proselytising.

It is true that the Mormons already have microfiche copies of burial records dating back decades, and can visit county record offices if they choose; but that is not a reason for giving them preferential access to every churchyard and all our registers and records, using the latest technology in digitally searchable format, which makes it very much easier for them to use this data for theological purposes that are completely contrary to the teaching of the Church of England.

The reason that the Mormon Church wishes to generate this huge database is so that it can baptise people after they have died into the Mormon Church, with the help of a relative. This is a key part of Mormon belief, and the reason that the Mormon Church invests so heavily in family history.

SECOND, there are important questions about data ownership and data creep. FamilySearch will scan not only burial records, but also every baptism and marriage register, every monument in church — and even, if the parish agrees, the content of the parish chest. Families who come to the Church of England for occasional offices are not aware that the Church of England will pass on this information to the Mormons, or that FamilySearch and My Heritage will have the right to sell on the data that they collect for profit after an interval.

Third, I am concerned about the financial model on which this project is based. The idea that somehow the Church should be grateful to have this information digitised on its behalf for free ignores the fact that the potential harvest of data by AG is extremely valuable. There is a wise dictum in the digital world that, if you do not pay for a product, you are, in fact, the product. Access to 250 million records — all the baptism, wedding, and funeral records held by the Church of England in easily searchable digital form — is something of significant commercial value.

As many clergy have discovered to their cost, a burial map that is not kept up to date is no use at all; yet, to update the digital record will cost each PCC a monthly fee of £8 (£96 per annum, plus VAT), plus the effort of entering all new data themselves. In a diocese with 275 churches, that would be a direct cost to the parishes of £31,680 per annum.

Fourth, I am concerned about the lack of consultation with local-authority archivists, who do the Church of England great service. Many local authorities hold these records as designated diocesan archivists, at considerable public expense, for the benefit of parishes and the wider community. The Chief Archivists in Local Government Group (CALGG) has, as its main concern, the care of these unique records, and is working for a united approach across local-authority archive services that hold parish records on behalf of churches. The lack of consultation with CALGG before the contract with AG was signed has made this more difficult.

For all these reasons, I urge the Archbishops’ Council to reconsider this project, for the sake of the parishes and the people they serve.

The Ven. Mark Ireland is the Archdeacon of Blackburn, and a former member of Archbishops’ Council.

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