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Illinois Country Living

Find A Grave
A global genealogical effort

by Jen Danzinger


Hunting for headstones can lead you to interesting places, such as this abandoned cemetery. Always be prepared to spend hours to find the plot you’re looking for. You never know what challenges you will face, such as tall weeds, overturned headstones, or hard to read inscriptions.

The overcast sky has opened and small snowflakes descend upon me on this early spring day as I wander amongst toppled headstones in a forgotten rural cemetery. Were it any other season, there may be no hope of finding what I came for as the weeds would stretch taller than the few standing monuments. Digital camera in hand, I capture each one and quietly repeat the family names to myself while searching for the one matching the e-mail print out in my pocket. I may look lost and sound like a madwoman, but I’m not. I’m a contributor.

Find A Grave was built by founder Jim Tipton in 1995. Originally designed to catalogue the graves of famous people, the Web site evolved into a global cooperative effort to build a database of all inhabitants of cemeteries. Tipton has a dedicated team administering the site, but the information contained within is constantly updated by a network of volunteers. According to the site, “thousands of contributors submit new listings, updates, corrections, photographs and virtual flowers every hour. The site simply wouldn’t exist without the 350,000 plus contributors.”

Find A Grave’s database of 22 million interments is completely free to search. Membership is also free and after completing a short form and logging in, one may add memorials, update obituaries, leave virtual flowers, and add or request photos of headstones.

People become a part of the Find A Grave community for many reasons. Mary Zabora of Edgewater, Md. explained “My father died when I was 19 and my first husband when I was 27, and I wanted to put them on the site so they would not be forgotten.”

Another member, Benjamin Warren of central Illinois found the site while doing a search for cemeteries around Bloomington-Normal. He says “I mostly use it to review cemeteries I’m interested in. I look up a specific cemetery that I’m going to visit to see if there are any famous grave sites or any grave markers that stick out.”

Broken Headstones

This pile of broken headstones contains lost information about the inhabitants of the cemetery. Cataloguing the inscriptions of old stones that are still standing is an important way to combat the loss of genealogical treasures to vandals and natural forces.

Members who have volunteered their photographic services are sent an e-mail asking if they’d like to hunt down a grave site in a nearby cemetery. For me, this is the addictive part of being a contributor. It’s a great excuse to spend time outdoors and a challenge to find one particular headstone in a sea of granite. While fulfilling photo requests I’ve travelled to parts of Illinois I had previously never investigated to help others find long lost relatives.

If you decide to volunteer your time and digital camera to fulfill photograph requests here are a couple tips: First, wear comfortable shoes because you may have to walk through many rows of plots before you find the one you’re looking for. Bring a piece of chalk to help make the inscription on extremely old, weatherbeaten stones more legible in your photo. The chalk will gradually wash away in the rain. Finally, remember that not all cemeteries are on public property. If the cemetery you’re visiting is on or surrounded by private property, you will need to obtain permission before entering.

If wandering cemeteries isn’t your style, you can contribute by opening the daily newspaper and transcribing the day’s obituaries into the database. You’ll find that the names of those who passed no longer seem like strangers to you and you’ll never look at a cemetery quite the same way again. Most importantly, you’ll be doing a great service for those doing genealogical research.





© 2008 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
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