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Graves Lost or Found? There’s an App for That!

by on January 13, 2020

The young woman calling from California sounded anxious to staff answering the phone at the Virginia Room of Fairfax County Public Library. Her grandmother had recently passed away, the caller explained, and the family wanted to bury Grandma next to Grandpa. The problem: Grandpa had passed decades earlier and the family wasn’t sure where he was buried, but thought he was in Fairfax County, Virginia. Initial searches for obituaries and death certificates turned up empty, but reference librarian Chris Barbuschak eventually found Grandpa’s local resting place using Find A Grave, after detecting an error in the birth date. The family was grateful for information that would enable Grandma to be laid to rest next to Grandpa. 

Most library reference questions regarding cemetery data aren’t quite as urgent as this one, but libraries do often receive requests for such information from genealogists and historians. Thanks to new technology, including crowdsourcing via apps and websites, such information is becoming more accessible. 

One of the latest examples is a new state-wide cemetery survey launched by the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), the State Highway Administration (SHA), and Preservation Maryland. The program will solicit help from community members to identify and record local cemeteries and burial sites. An app being developed by SHA will collect data points of grave sites to create a layer in SHA’s statewide geographic information system (GIS) mapping tool. The data will help SHA avoid interference with burial sites when planning projects. About a dozen cemeteries have been documented by the app so far, many dating from the 19th century and located on private property.[1]

Much more work is forthcoming. As part of the project, archaeologist Caroline Herritt, working as Cemetery Document Specialist for Preservation Maryland, will survey 100 at-risk cemeteries, some in abandoned or poorly maintained locations, and will attempt to locate previously unknown burial sites.[2] Libraries and other community centers will be the site of workshops lead by SHA and Preservation Maryland in which members of the public can find out more about the project, volunteer as community liaisons, and eventually learn how to use the app to collect and record data. 

Internationally, new technology and the growth of participatory culture are making it easier for researchers to find graves of ancestors or people of interest, and to contribute data. Find A Grave allows members of the public to search for graves located on any of the seven continents. Members may add photos of headstones, memorial information, or GPS coordinates, and may also request photos of grave sites or headstones from others users.  

The Mason Family Cemetery at Gunston Hall in Lorton, Virginia. Along with members of the Mason family, the site includes dozens of graves of unidentified individuals, located using remote sensing technology and marked as part of an Eagle Scout project, according to a docent tour, December 28, 2019. Photo by the author.

Billion Graves is a similar resource. Billing itself as “the world’s largest resource for searchable GPS cemetery data,” their app includes satellite maps of cemeteries around the world with GPS markers to help users find individual graves. Users can contribute GPS data, add images of headstones, and transcribe material online. The website includes a guide for service groups and those earning Eagle Badges that explains how to contribute by documenting a cemetery. 

Many libraries have taken an active role in documenting local cemetery data and making such data more user-friendly for customers. Pharr Memorial Library in Texas, noticing customers struggle to navigate paper records in their collection, coordinated with city Geographic Information System (GIS) and engineering departments to map the data for over 2,000 deceased individuals in nearby Guadalupe Cemetery.[3] The data is now available online as an interactive map

Many cemeteries have created their own apps to help visitors find individual headstones and landmarks within the property. Arlington National Cemetery’s app, ANC Explorer, for example, enables families and members of the public to view front-and-back headstone photos, and receive directions to grave locations and other points of interest via web or mobile app. 

Laws and regulations regarding the preservation of historic cemeteries vary by country, and within the U.S. are governed by federal historic preservation laws as well as state laws and local regulations. The Library of Congress guide, Preservation of Historic Cemeteries in Selected Countries, offers an overview of some of the complexities.  

Cemetery data is important to many researchers, not to mention families like the one who contacted Fairfax County Public Library for help finding their missing Grandpa. Fortunately, with the development of new technologies and techniques, these markers of history are becoming easier to locate and preserve. 

  1.  Deville, Taylor. 2019. “‘These Places are Worth Protecting’: Public Invited to Help Document Burial Sites at Arbutus Library Workshop.” Baltimore Sun Media, December 6, 2019. https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/baltimore-county/catonsville/cng-co-ca-at-cemetery-documentation-workshop-20191206-6wihjyieuvbzzpuzfz7ixgwm2u-story.html
  2. Cowen, Elly Colmers. 2019. “New Statewide Cemetery Documentation Project Underway.” Preservation Maryland, March 19, 2019.https://www.preservationmaryland.org/new-statewide-cemetery-documentation-project-underway/
  3.  Rosales, Romeo, Jr. 2015. “The Departed: One Library’s Innovative Cemetery Project.” Public Libraries Online, November 10, 2015. https://publiclibrariesonline.org/2015/11/the-departed-one-librarys-innovative-cemetery-project/

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