Thursday, September 30, 2010

Communing with the Dead

Recently on the crime drama “Bones,” Emily Deschanel who portrays Dr. Temperance Brennan so aptly stated, "My most meaningful relationships are with dead people." As genealogists, we are often dealing more with the dead than we are with the living.

There are times in our genealogical pursuits that we wish that we could conjure up our ancestors from the beyond so that they may enlighten us about our families. While some believe they can actually do this, I personally do not desire to cross that chasm between the living and the dead until it is my time to go; however, I believe that the dead speak yet.

As a child, I guess I became accustomed to the serenity of rolling hills of green that were dotted with granite, marble, and bronze. This came early. At age seven, I began accompanying my mother on her visits to the graves of my father and grandparents so she might tend to the flowers she had planted as as a memorial. As I began searching my own family history, I frequently found myself haunting graveyards looking for long lost relatives.

When I began researching a Civil War unit, I was drawn to numerous cemeteries searching for the final resting places of these soldiers of the rebellion. My kids can attest that when they were younger, I dragged them around from town to town looking for these elusive graves and recording their epitaphs on film.

Now let's shake that Magic 8-Ball.

Several years ago, I stumbled upon an interesting web site that allowed individuals to create memorials for loved ones or any other deceased individual. has been online since 1995 and was the brainchild of Jim Tipton who created the site that now has nearly four million visits daily.
In the infancy of the public’s embrace of the Internet, Tipton could not find any site on the web that dealt with his hobby of visiting graveyards – something that he too has been doing since childhood. Therefore, he created Find A Grave.

I do not remember when I first discovered Find A Grave, but it was probably between 1998 and 2000. No doubt, I found it by searching the Internet for people bearing my own surname. For years, I considered contributing to the site with my own relatives, but did not officially join until October 2008. My decision to do so was prompted by taking photos of my great-great grandparents’ graves at Grandview Cemetery in Johnstown, PA. My mother and youngest daughter accompanied me on the trip.

It was a few days after my mother’s 90th birthday and she had never visited the graves of her grandfather’s parents. Her grandfather’s three sisters were also buried there and she had met them as a child and had stayed overnight with her grandfather’s youngest sister. The same day, I also was able to photograph the graves of several Civil War veterans from the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves I had been researching.

 Monument for the Unknown Dead from the Johnstown Flood at Grandview

That same week, I visited another Grandview Cemetery – this time in my hometown of North Versailles, Pennsylvania and re-photographed the graves of my father, grandfather, grandmother, aunt, and uncle. On October 11, 2008, these five graves became my first entries on Find A Grave.

Nine days later, I uploaded memorials for numerous other family and Civil War Veterans. Included among this list were the first graves I visited for genealogical purposes – my second great grandparents John Merriman and his wife, Sarah Ann Jones Merriman.

I first visited these graves in 1968 after being inspired by an 8th grade English class assignment that required the students to write a brief family history and create a family tree. I’m indebted to Mr. George Ihnat for introducing me to a lifelong hobby.

In the process of doing my research, my mother found a yellowed newspaper clipping that recounted the death of Sarah Merriman who was the oldest living woman in McKeesport. It mentioned her burial location and my mother and I drove to the cemetery and after checking into the office, we were able to find her and her husband’s grave.

While these were the only two marked graves on this site, I found out later that nearly a dozen other graves were in this plot – most were children. I was happy to finally document these unmarked burial sites on Find A Grave.

While my original intent was to upload only family graves on the site, I noticed that this fairly large cemetery with over 40,000 graves had only a representation of 150 on Find A Grave. In late 2008, I took my copy of the interment records and began preparing these for inclusion on Find A Grave. By summer, all of the graves up through 2006 were documented.

Knowing that many people are searching for ancestors, but do not know where they are buried, I felt that by adding to the massive number of (over 51 million) grave records already on Find A Grave that I could help others find their family members. 

In the process, I would be able to memorialize my own relatives. These included 146 out of 215 individuals with my surname and 73 out 104 memorials with my mother’s maiden name. Other individuals find it their duty to photograph grave markers that people request.

In the process I hear from a number of folk that were able to track down grave locations of close and distant relatives. For example, this week I received a request from a gentleman in England who was searching for his great-great grandfather that had for a brief time lived in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.

He had found a name that I had added over a year ago to the database. The memorial was found among the over 40,000 I had uploaded for the McKeesport-Versailles Cemetery and I told him that all I knew about this individual was already online.

According to his research, the family had emigrated to the US in the early 1880s, lived in McKeesport, and returned to England to appear in the 1891 census; albeit, the great-great grandfather was absent and no further information was available concerning what happened to him. Having experienced similar brick walls in my research, I could empathize with his plight.

I also was impressed with his willingness to find concrete evidence before claiming this gentleman as his deceased ancestor. I did not hold out much hope for him securing the proper evidence as Pennsylvania vital records prior to 1906 are scant at best when the event occurred outside a major city.

Although the cemetery usually does not take email requests for family data, they did provide him the age of death of this man as being 38. This agreed with what he knew about the mystery man and I was able to provide him information on how to secure a death record for the municipality. These began to be recorded just two months prior to his supposed ancestor’s death.

As I cautioned, there is no guarantee that a record existed as they were not mandatory until statewide adoption in 1906. I’ve been down this route as a number of my ancestors who were born or died in McKeesport prior to 1906 did not have corresponding records for the event. In addition, I provided him the link to the local historical center which could provide him a copy of the death notice in the local paper if one exists. Since there are no other extant records for him locally, I am anxious to see the results.

By searching Find A Grave, I have found the resting place of a number of deceased family members and friends.  By having my own family on Find A Grave, I have met distant relatives that allowed me to learn more about my own ancestry.
Since I began posting on the site, I have been contacted by a first cousin, thrice removed who is also my second cousin, twice removed who was researching his father’s roots. I knew about his father who is moderately famous, but never had any contact with him.

A third cousin, once removed was a source for additional information on our common ancestors on my mother's side of the family. He found my memorial for my great-grandfather who led him to contact me. While he had a wealth of information, I had specific info that he did not have. He used this and was able to take our family back six additional generations through researching parish records at an LDS Family History Center near his home.

Early this year, a half-first cousin, twice removed contacted me after seeing memorials in reference to some of our shared family members. Being considerably younger than his grandmother who is my half-first cousin, I really didn’t know her. I met her once when I was twelve years old and met her daughter once when I was 20. While I didn’t gain any great genealogical knowledge from my email and phone conversations with my newly found cousin, I was able to reconnect with a part of my family I barely knew.

Find A Grave also helped me connect with individuals connected with the Civil War vets I’ve been researching. One of my photos from Johnstown, PA provided me a contact with the soldier’s great-great granddaughter. I was able to supply a great deal of information regarding her ancestor and she provided me a scan of his tintype photo. It was a win-win situation.

It also has been a place where folks from my past have been able to reconnect. A distant cousin with whom I was in contact with in 1996 found me on Find A Grave and reconnected with me. A few days ago, I received my invitation to a family reunion next year – the last one was ten years ago.

Last week, a college friend who is now a funeral director found my listing on the site and we reconnected after 31 years of silence. We were classmates, coworkers, and even next door neighbors for a while. We were able to find each other because of Find A Grave.

Grant it (or jokingly granite), Find A Grave is a secondary source and any secondary source must be taken with a certain level of caution. Since the information is submitted by people, there can be incorrect information posted on Find A Grave. These errors may be caused by a number of factors.

Interment and not death dates. Death dates may be slightly wrong if cemetery records are used as the source. Often older records may have an interment date and not a death date for the person in question. This is probably the most common error, but it is usually within one to three days from the actual death date that correct information could be found within other records.

Incorrect information on the tombstone. This happens more than people realize. Descendants may be confused by the actual birth date of a loved one or if the stone was erected many years after the person's death, that date may be incorrect as well. There are at least two of these problems in my family and one involves my grandfather. In his case, the birth year is incorrect on his stone.

My father purchased the stone from Sears and Roebuck and installed it in the 1950s. He mistakenly listed the birth year as 1880. Even my grandfather’s death certificate is wrong as my grandmother supplied his birth year as 1878. I have his parents’ family bible and his birth date was December 14, 1879. The 1880 census corroborates this by listing him as six months old.

Transcription errors. Face it, we are all human – we can transpose numbers and input data incorrectly. It is easily done and I’ve done both. Hopefully, I’ve caught most of these – but if I haven’t, others may spot an inconsistency and alert me. Just this morning, a lady alerted me that I transposed the birth and death dates on one of my memorials.

Incorrect inferences. Recently I had several people request that I add specific information about some of my submissions based on their inferences. Last week, a lady provided a transcripted newspaper article of a woman who was murdered in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. This woman, who had the same common name, as a woman buried in Pittsburgh (300 miles to the west) during the same year. She requested that I change the date on memorial and add the newspaper story to the memorial.

The commonality between the woman in the clipping and the woman in the grave was that they were both from Pennsylvania (Wilkes Barre vs. Pittsburgh), died in the same year 1891 (but different months), and had the same common name. I found it doubtful that a person murdered in Wilkes Barre would be buried in Pittsburgh without any reference to Pittsburgh in the article or any information that tied the two individuals as being one in same.

The result, I refused to make the changes and specified my reasons why. I’ve had a number of similar requests that were based more on wishful thinking rather than actual evidence. I refuse to make changes without at least a smattering of documentation that the request is correct. All of us in searching our families have made poor inferences about someone with the same name – it is easy to do and is a common genealogical error.

Find A Grave is an invaluable tool if you are trying to track an elusive family member. Not every grave is listed, but a good number are and if you haven’t searched the database or have contributed to the records, I urge you to do so soon. I have found numerous relatives because someone took the time to add a memorial.

In addition, up to five photos can be added to an unsponsored memorial. Although only the creator or the owner of the memorial can make textual changes in a memorial, anyone can add a photo. For special relatives, a $5.00 fee allows you to sponsor the memorial. The sponsorship removes advertisements and permits you to post up to 20 photos on the memorial. These photos may be the only opportunity for loved ones at a distance to see the grave marker or a picture of their relatives.

Find A Grave allows a family to memorialize a loved one virtually. This vicarious final resting place does not require a person to be interred to be remembered. Memorials are created for individuals who have been lost at sea, had their ashes scattered, or whose remains were not recovered following a catastrophe - to name a few.
Find A Grave is not just for cemeteries but for memorials of anyone and everyone.

In addition, flowers may be placed on graves and certain members visit hundreds of memorials placing virtual flowers on those they visit. You can create your own flowers or icons to upload. I normally do this for special individuals.

During December 2008 when I was full steam in putting records on Find A Grave, my wife was bitten by the genealogy bug. She had only a passing interest in this hobby she disdainfully referred to as “your obsession” until this time, so I was greatly pleased.

Having been adopted out before the age of two and knowing her birth mother, she began searching out her family. During Christmas break we used the new cameras we bought one another to photograph the graves of her birth family members.

While we were at Sunset Memorial Gardens in Beckley, WV that day (a rather large public cemetery near the interstate highway exchange), we were walking through one section when I spotted a car with Indiana plates that appeared to be having some trouble maneuvering around our parked vehicle.

I went to go move the car and the couple got out – they weren’t having problems – they were watching us with our cameras snapping tombstones. The first words out of their mouths were, “Are you with Find A Grave?” My wife had been kidding me for three months about contributing to the site – and her comment was “what are the chances?”

They wanted a photo of us – which we obliged them and asked to take one of them. Ron and Sharon Fine explained that they were on their way to Florida and always tried to get several memorials from every state they visited and when they saw the cemetery as they exited the West Virginia Turnpike, they picked this time as an opportunity to fulfill their personal obligation.

Ron and Sharon Fine - Find A Grave Contributors

Back in June while at Jefferson Memorial Park, in Pleasant Hills, PA, I was searching for some graves of cousins. A fellow walking through the same section was looking for a specific grave number. We figured out where his intended grave was located and he found it just paces away from where I was taking photos. He mentioned that he was taking pictures graves of specific veterans for what else – posting on Find A Grave. I told him I was there for the same reason; however, the objects of my photos were family members.

You never know who you might meet in a cemetery – if they have a camera, they may be a Find A Grave volunteer who is simply extending the database of online memorials or fulfilling a request for a photo of a grave. You may never know who you might dig up until you Find A Grave.