Of ‘grave’ concern to genealogists

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What did we do without the internet?

For those of us who began our genealogical journey before Ancestry.com, familysearch, fold3, and even Google (they refer to this era as B.G.!), we remember the days of having to find information by checking one location at a time. If we needed to find where someone was buried, and we did not know which cemetery, we had to visit many different cemeteries one at a time. We could call them too. If we didn’t know what town in Italy someone was born in, we had to order film one town at a time, search it, give up, and order another film for a different town.

Once they started posting large databases on the internet, with data from many different sources, we could search for one name and find where they might be anywhere in the world!

After making a lot of use of one site in particular, I realized I really have not extolled the virtues of findagrave.com. So here goes.

I don’t remember exactly when the site was started, but I am registered user number 71. There are many millions of users today. Findagrave started out as a curiosity site for people to post photos of the graves of the famous. It was designed to let us know that we would visit the crypt of Tiny Tim and Senator Hubert Humphrey at the same cemetery in Minneapolis. We could search by famous person, see the cemetery they are buried or entombed in, and see photos of the grave marker/mausoleum. We could then see other famous people buried at the same cemetery, so we could plan to visit all the famous people and make a day of it. Sometimes findagrave did not list the location of the famous person’s grave, due to privacy concerns. Some cemeteries are happy to direct people to their famous residents, and some will simply not help at all.

Who qualifies as famous? I’m not sure who gets to decide this, but famous people could be anonymous military heroes who won the Congressional Medal of Honor and happen to be buried at a local churchyard, all the way up to the biggest stars of music, stage, and screen. Political figures rest side by side with legendary criminals.

I did use findagrave many times to find which famous people were buried in the same cemeteries as my relatives. However, over time, findagrave changed its mission and decided to allow ordinary people to post burial records and photos of the graves of other ordinary people, so that relatives, friends, and researchers could find these graves more easily. This caused a logistical problem. How do they manage when two different people post a grave record of the same person? What if two people disagree on the information in the record? Who decides which information is right? They eventually figured out a system to allow the person who created the original record to have the right to contact the person who made a duplicate record to ask them to merge the two records together, or delete the duplicate. If a user had information that could make the record more accurate, they could contact the record “owner” through findagrave and let them know, and the record owner could ignore the new information, or accept the update and correct their record.

There are many records on findagrave that do not contain photos. Many people have submitted records that confirm that a person is in a cemetery, but they do not have the photo yet. There might just be a death notice. So findagrave came up with a system for people to request photos for a particular grave record. The grave record must first be set up in findagrave, and linked to a specific cemetery. As a registered user, you could click a button to request a photo to be taken of that grave. The request does not go just to the record owner, but also to anyone who lives within a few miles of that cemetery who registers on findagrave that they are willing to take photos for people. In other words, you could be a registered findagrave member, and as long as you do not volunteer to fulfill photo requests, you won’t get bothered by these requests. However, if you decide you want to visit a cemetery and take photos of some of the requested graves, you can “take” the request, which means you have committed to taking the photo of that grave, and other people will not be able to “take” it.

Sometimes, when a user takes a request, they get to the cemetery and run into a snag. What if the grave is not marked? What if the cemetery does not have this person at all? What if the cemetery will not release the grave location to this stranger who takes pictures? They can release the request and send a note to the requester that there is a problem. However, if they find the correct grave and take a photo, they can upload the photo in findagrave and it links to the grave record. So the next time someone looks up that record, the photo is there. The requester is notified via e-mail that the photo has been uploaded, and they receive a link to the record to see the results.

This findagrave photo request is a wonderful tool for those of us with relatives buried out of state. (There are some records for Canada and other countries, but do not expect to accidentally find your family graves in Italy.) I have received many photographs of graves from Alaska to Florida, and I have helped people out with photo requests in some cemeteries that I visit. This is a service most cemeteries will not provide themselves, so the fact that volunteers will walk around a cemetery in Fairbanks, Alaska, to find your grand uncle’s gravestone is an amazing thing, especially since I don’t plan to visit Alaska anytime soon!

The findagrave website can be used with a PC or tablet, and there is also an app for your phone. The app is more limited, to the degree that you cannot look for JUST famous people buried at a cemetery. But it is still a good way to look for a person and see the photo. I highly recommend using the web site over the app. I can manage my photo requests better that way, and also manage correspondence between myself and other grave finders!

If you have any questions, send me an e-mail at italianroots@comcast.net and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject line. Have fun!


About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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One comment

  1. If I know where my father was born – Santa Cristina Gela, Provincia Palermo, Sicliy, Italy. Where would you suggest starting the search of my family tree?

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