You may have spotted someone walking round the churchyard at Greystoke recently carrying some strange equipment. You won’t have noticed that the registers have left the church – and now have returned safely.

Nationally the burial grounds of all Church of England churches are being digitally mapped. This will mean that in the end the exact location of all the headstones will be known, and available on the internet.

Church registers are particularly precious because they are the only record of baptisms and burials. Older registers are safe in the archives (ours are in Carlisle) but the current ones are potentially vulnerable. So they are all being digitised too, although as they refer to living people the baptism registers won’t be going online.

A local firm, Atlantic Geomatics (UK), is the contractor and of course they are starting on home turf in the Diocese of Carlisle. The intention is to complete our diocese this year, and all of England’s 19,000 churches in 7 years. Churchyards will be digitally mapped using GPS, lasers to detect structures such as headstones and kerbs, and grave mounds. Meanwhile it is photographed, and cameras: the device in the picture takes 300,000 laser measurements per second and the five cameras on it take two photos a second. Later the gravestones are photographed separately, as are the monuments in the church: this level of recording has never been done anywhere before. All registers are being re-scanned (older ones in the archives were scanned to microfilm; they will be digital and in colour). Working registers are also being scanned although the records for baptisms will be locked for 100 years, and for marriages for 80. All registers will be freshly transcribed into digital format.

Then behind the scenes the registers, the digital map and the photographs will all be matched up so that on the internet you will be able to go from the record to the map to the headstone.

And the cost to the parish? Nothing at all. Two websites (MyHeritage and FamilySearch) are paying all the costs. The records will now be safely preserved; the mapping will be accurate; there will be improved access to people who want it. And data protection and privacy concerns are covered, too.