Thursday, September 05, 2013

Moving those cemeteries online

The proliferation of online resources, many of them free, is one of the gratifying things about returning to genealogical research after a time away. I've been focused this week on trying to resolve issues in Pennsylvania, Kansas and elsewhere related to my Myers and Dick families (Jacob and Harriet Dick Myers were among my Lucas County great-great-grandparents) that were roadblocks a few years ago.

One big challenge always has been to figure out where people were buried when you live hundreds or thousands of miles removed from where they died --- and sometimes even when it's possible to visit cemeteries personally, especially when they're very large.

Resources have grown in this area over the years, but it's been gratifying this week to discover that more and more local governments that own and manage cemeteries, many of them huge, are investing in software to move their bookkeeping systems into the 21st century and that, as a byproduct, make burial records available online.

Iowa offers a good example of how gravestone resources have grown during the last century. 

The first big push came from the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s which, among other projects, hired the underemployed to canvass and record tombstone inscriptions in thousands of cemeteries. These records were incomplete (only Last Chance Cemetery in Lucas County was recorded, for example) and languished for years. More recently WPA records were adopted as a special project by the Iowa GenWeb project and most are accessible now via this online search engine.

Tombstone photographs are another Iowa GenWeb project, one the Lucas County Genealogical Society has participated extensively in. The search engine for that project is here.

Some 40 years after the WPA project, a network of local genealogical societies spread like wildfire across Iowa and many of these undertook comprehensive cemetery projects, often publishing the result. Some of the results are available online (check out GenWeb "County Projects" here), but most are not.

The huge leap forward came with development and growth of the volunteer-driven online Find A Grave project. You can now search 104 million grave records here. Thanks to hard-working volunteers, data from and photographs of most Lucas County tombstones now are accessible here.

But actually locating a grave onsite remains a problem. Find A Grave volunteers rarely have easy access to cemetery records, so precise locations remain obscure.

This is not an issue in smaller cemeteries, which can be walked easily, but in larger ones, like the Chariton Cemetery, it is. The records here live at City Hall, and while the staff there is extremely helpful, consulting has to be done during business hours --- and there's no signage at the cemetery to explain how and when to locate its records.

That situation is unlikely to change any time soon because of financial and time constraints. But it has changed elsewhere, and I've found that fact useful this week.

As an example, I've known for years that my aunt some generations removed, Phoebe (Myers) Osborn, died at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, during 1910, and figured that she was buried there. But none of the usual resources offered a clue to exactly where and I was far to lazy to start writing letters or sending e-mails in an attempt to find out.

So I was gratified to discover this week that Johnstown's largest cemetery, Grandview, has now gone online. By using the search engine on its Web site (top), I was able to locate Aunt Phoebe's burial record (above) which included not only dates of death and burial but also a precise grave location that could be used in conjunction with cemetery maps, also available at the site.

The same situation has developed at the city-owned cemetery in McPherson, Kansas, where James Dick, brother of Harriet (Dick) Myers, is buried. Again, I was able to locate his burial record and those of other family members online as well as a precise grave location. Although photos of the Dick tombstones are not available at the city site, they are available at Find A Grave, so in this instance the two resources worked together.

It seems likely that most large cemeteries eventually will digitalize their record-keeping systems and that more of these types of resources will become available online. For genealogists, this can't happen soon enough.

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