by Marny Klump
Are you looking for something to do outside with the kids that will respect the concept of social distancing? Take them to a cemetery.
Yup, you read that right.
You may not have heard of a site called Find A Grave—I hadn’t either until I started doing genealogy. Find A Grave is the world’s largest gravesite database, and the best part is that it is all community-driven through volunteers like you and me. To date, over 180 million memorials have been created showing where individuals are buried.
When I first learned of the site, I was working on my husband’s family tree using Ancestry and had some gaps in my research. Find A Grave and its wonderful community of volunteers were able to fill those in.
(Check out our Genealogy Unit Study - it's a great project to do during social distancing!)
The database has become a genealogical goldmine of information, because headstones will often provide missing pieces of family history, such as:
- full name
- date of birth
- date of death
- spouse’s name
- marriage dates
- children’s names
Many Find a Grave memorial pages also include the place of birth and death, and some even feature images of the individual, scans of obituaries, and copies of death certificates. All of that information is key in tracing family lineage.
The final resting place of our ancestors can tell a story—but only with our help.
My journey with Find A Grave started with a simple request. I wanted to see if the headstone of my husband’s ancestor would provide information that I didn't already have, so I submitted a request for a photo of the headstone to be added to Find A Grave. My request was fulfilled, so I decided to pay it forward and signed up to be a volunteer.
In the past, we have used this activity as a means to get out and enjoy some fresh air while teaching our kids about community service and volunteerism. Now, with the current concerns about spreading illness, it is a wonderful opportunity to get out of the house in a way that respects social distancing and provides a valuable service.
If the thought of walking around a cemetery or graveyard doesn’t creep you out, here’s what to do.
💻 Planning what you’ll photograph
- Go to Find A Grave and create a profile.
- Once your profile is created, I would suggest fulfilling a request locally. To do this, click the camera icon (top right).
- A list of open photo requests will populate. Take a look at the list. You will likely note that many are family cemeteries. I would avoid these for your first time out. They are often on private property and difficult to locate, and they involve asking permission to enter the property. Instead, choose a cemetery that is open to the public, such as one that is attached to a church or funeral home.
Sometimes the cemetery's Find A Grave page will list when the gates are open and give hours for the office like the page for Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Keep in mind that cemetery hours may be different during the current shutdowns.
- You can also add photos to listings by cemetery even if there is no current request. Click on the name of the cemetery/graveyard to gather details about the location, open requests, number of memorials, and percentage photographed.
- What my family and I liked to do was to click on the hyperlink for Memorials Added at the cemetery we are headed to. This brings you to a list of every memorial for that particular cemetery. You will notice that not all of them have photos.
- At this dashboard, use the filter to only show those that have no grave photo.
- Print enough copies of this list for each person in your family.
🧺 Preparing for the outing
So we have claimed a photo request and found additional memorials in the same location that need photographs. Now what?
Depending on the time of day you are choosing to do this activity, you could have a picnic. My mum and I would do this when my husband was working. We packed a lunch, threw the kids in the car, and headed out for a day trip.
Before heading out, explain to your kids what you’re doing. Let them know that it is a final resting place for loved ones and that we must be respectful. My kids understood not to stand, sit, or lean on the headstones.
We would have clipboards, highlighters, and pens. The kids liked to highlight the ones that had been located on the printouts. Sometimes, the headstone was hard to read, so they would write notes on the printout beside the person’s name to use when we got home.
You’re there to take photos, which can be done one of two ways—bring your camera or use your cell phone. Either way, just make sure that you are taking close-up pictures of the headstones and not photos with a lot of extra stuff in the background.
My kids liked to help with this part, and it is a great way to teach them how to use a camera. Of course, I would double check and take an extra picture when needed.
Some things to keep in mind:
- Older headstones are fragile and should be treated with care.
- Do not attempt to clean headstones to make them more legible for photos.
- Reflected light from foil-covered cardboard or a flashlight held at an angle can help with illuminating details in headstone photographs.
☑️ Packing your supplies
Plan how advanced you want to get with your photos and whether you want to make it a longer outing with a picnic. Here is a basic list of items to bring; adjust as needed:
- picnic, if desired
- printout of graves to look for
- flashlight and/or foil-covered cardboard for hard-to-read headstones
- bug spray
📷 Visiting the cemetery
Upon arrival at the cemetery, we like to enjoy the beauty of the churches before we headed into the graveyard. Beautiful stained glass. Some with two doors. Several had historical plaques. All of this provided great conversation.
If the cemetery is at a church, take a picture of the church since the Find A Grave site doesn’t always have a picture for the location itself. This is helpful to others who use the site as a way to see where ancestors are buried or who want to visit.
If you are like me, and orderly, you go row by row. That will NOT work for the kids. Trust me. This is why I print out all of the memorials that are missing a headstone photo.
The kids can each take their sheet of paper and look for those names. They get excited when they find the names and will call you over to show you. Depending on the size of the cemetery, you can use the free Find A Grave app (available for iOS and Android) to verify that each memorial is listed. If a name does not appear in the app, you can take a picture and create a memorial for it if you wish.
(Be aware that managing a memorial is an ongoing responsibility, since other users may wish to make edits or additions to the memorial over time. To do this, they make edit requests of the memorial manager—that’s you if you created the memorial—which need to be approved or disapproved. If you create a memorial, you may want to post in your bio that you are happy to transfer memorials to family members.)
You might see little silver markers in place of a headstone. Take pictures of those. Over time, those blow away, get run over by lawnmowers, or the letters start to come off. Some will never be replaced by a headstone and that data is then lost.
Walking through can raise questions that you can then bring home. For example, why are there rocks on top of a headstone? What do those symbols engraved on the headstone mean? Be sure to write your questions down or you’ll risk forgetting by the time you get home.
🖼️ Uploading your photos
Time to upload your hard work!
- Log back into Find A Grave and click on the camera icon again (photo requests)
- Click on the tab that notes Requests Claimed
- Select which memorial you are going to upload a photo for and click Fulfill. Follow the instructions for uploading.
- If you took other photos during your visit, you can upload to existing memorials or create new ones as needed. You can do so through the Contribute section at the top left when you log in.
There are a lot of other ways to contribute to the preservation of our ancestral history using Find A Grave. If this becomes a longer-term project for your family, check into these additional ways to volunteer:
- If you find a cemetery that hasn’t been created yet, you can create a spreadsheet with all of the information to upload (don’t worry, there’s a template for you) or you can photograph all the memorials and upload them.
- You can choose to transcribe them yourself or let someone else do it.
- If you are bored (I know, you probably giggled at that, you’re a parent) you can transcribe photos others have taken.
I hope you enjoy the day spent with family and know how very much genealogy enthusiasts appreciate your time. You are helping to preserve a little bit of history and may even help someone with their brick wall just by spending a day at the cemetery.
A Canadian transplant, Marny lives with her family outside of Richmond, VA. A recovering accountant, she currently has two home-based businesses, which allow her the flexibility to be present for her two very active kids. She loves to volunteer and has been called a social injustice warrior by her friends. Her love of genealogy has led to a passion for helping those who are adopted or of unknown parentage put the pieces of their puzzles together using DNA.
Marny didn’t like dogs (gasp) until five years ago when Chief came into the picture (aptly named because her husband is a Fire Lieutenant). The family loves to remind Chief that mommy didn’t want a dog. He is a great co-worker. While the kids don’t like to hit the cemeteries anymore, Grandma and Marny love to take day trips and stop at the random cemeteries they find along the way. If you need her, she will be in the corner crying about the eldest flying the coup next year!