All over the world there are countless enthusiasts hot on the trail of their family history. Local archives, personal records and correspondence all have an essential role as people try to trace their ancestors back as far as they can manage. Gravestones and memorials, particularly those from more recent centuries, play a valuable part in their search.

Grave markers can be an essential piece of the genealogical jigsaw, because of their inscriptions or epitaphs. Since their introduction centuries ago, the tradition has been to record name, age and date of death. Over the years - and particularly during the Victorian era - this developed into the addition of other information, such as family links ("brother of", "wife of" etc.) and occupations.

The length of the gravestone epitaph itself can give clues about the person buried there. Inscriptions are charged for by the lettering, so in general a lengthy text suggests a family financially better off. However, shorter epitaphs are not necessarily an indication of a poor person. There may just have been a preference for simplicity, or the deceased might even have been responsible for some family misdemeanour.

Gravestone inscriptions, particularly the much older ones, are not always limited to words. The skull and crossbone, for example, was popular on grave markers in the 1600s, being used as the ancient symbol for death. In the following century, the crossbones were beginning to make way for wings, introducing the idea of an afterlife. Over time, the emphasis shifted away from death and more positively onto life, with angels replacing skulls.

Headstones inscribed with urns, broken columns or inverted torches all indicate a life that ended too soon, whilst a sickle or sheaf of wheat represents the soul being reaped. An hourglass bearing wings suggests the fleeting passage of time. The Victorians in particular were very fond of symbolism. They particularly liked the weeping willow tree, which was used to suggest that, just like a tree, man must reach for heaven.

However, lengthy inscriptions need upright headstones and, to ease ground-keeping maintenance, cemeteries are now steering a return to smaller grave markers, placed level with the grass. Over the coming decades, the task of tracing their ancestry is likely to become more difficult for people as the opportunity to record this valuable information is restricted.

Creative epitaphs are gradually becoming a thing of the past and today's inscriptions are more to the point. Beyond the name, age and dates of birth and death they are often restricted simply to "devoted wife and mother" or "now at rest", denying the keen genealogist further important clues for their search.