Last weekend I biked to a cemetery near my apartment with a camera and a name. I was looking for the grave of Rose Victor, a woman I’ve never met and know nothing about—except that she was buried in Mount Judah Cemetery in Queens (Section 2, Block 6, Gate 24, Path L07, Grave 62) on August 30, 1921. My mission was clear: Take a picture of her headstone, and upload it to FindaGrave.com—a crowdsourced database of gravestone photographs.
Completing that mission was harder than I expected.
This whole ordeal started when a man named Robert Kenney emailed me to let me know that there were a lot of people with my last name (Eveleth) buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “You have several kinfolk at Mt. Auburn and also around the eastern Mass. area,” he told me.
Normally, an email like that would have been creepy, but Kenney explained that he’s part of a online community of people who go out and photograph graves for the website Find A Grave. It’s his hobby. The site lets people submit requests for photographs of graves in cemeteries all over the United States, and their community of volunteers tries to fulfill those requests. It’s like a combination of Task Rabbit and Geocaching, but for pictures of headstones.
Kenney stumbled upon Find A Grave about five years ago while researching his own ancestry. “When I saw what their purpose was and that anybody could volunteer to take requested photos for others, I signed up right away,” he says. When we last spoke he had missed my earlier call because he was out “cemeterying,” as he calls it. These days, Kenney goes cemeterying at least once a week with his fellow retiree and friend Stu. “It gives us something to do, some much needed exercise and gets us out into the fresh air.”
Looking for Rose Victor’s gravestone was harder than I expected. Mount Judah lays between the Jackie Robinson Parkway and a handful of baseball fields where a little league game was in full swing. The cemetery is split by a road, divided into two diamond shapes gridded by narrow walkways through rows of gravestones. Since 1912 there have been 54,000 burials at Mount Judah. I had to find one.
Jason Victor, the man who requested a photo of Rose’s headstone, was kind enough to list the section and row she was buried in. But finding those markers wasn’t simple, especially for someone like me who doesn’t spend all that much time in cemeteries. It turns out Mount Judah has a map of the grounds on their website, but I hadn’t brought it with me. Rookie mistake.
Kenney has his own unique approach to cemeterying, and was able to give me some tips. He shows up to every graveyard with a spreadsheet of names and burial dates, and usually makes a bee line for the cemetery’s office to ask for a map.
I was far too nervous to even go into Mount Judah’s office, let alone ask any of the Orthodox Jews staffing the grounds for help. What would I say? Hello, I’m looking for a headstone for someone I don’t know so I can take a picture of it and put it on the Internet. Kenney has his spiel down pat at this point. He and Stu even made up business cards that say “Find A Grave Volunteer” to give to people to look more official. “I find being up front with them is the best bet,” Kenney says.
At this point, some of the cemeteries Kenney frequents near his home know him. He’s even worked out a deal with the employees at one. “For an occasional $5 Dunkin' Donuts gift card we’ll leave a list of as many as 40 names with them,” he says, and they look up the specific address of each gravestone and give him back a list to go photograph.
To date, Kenney has uploaded over 1,000 photos to the site. On his profile, people whose requests he’s filled leave messages of thanks. “Bob, Thanks for your most kind deed in taking the tombstone photo for Harry and Minnie. You did a great job, so nice to see them. Thanks!!” writes Barbara Wilson Krause.
The volunteers at Find A Grave seem to be largely people like Kenney—retired and looking for a hobby. Paul R has uploaded 289,847 photos since joining the site in 2010. “I am retired so I have time to walk through the cemeteries and take pictures,” he writes in his bio. Other people seem to be fascinated by cemeteries themselves.
Most people who use Find a Grave seem to be doing so as part of genealogy projects. “If you can get a picture of the headstone you know exactly when grandad died because there are very few mistakes on gravestones,” Kenney says. But beyond building family trees, the website is also a place for people to reconnect with, research, and leave tributes to their loved ones. One grave request that came into my inbox reads: “I'm a Belgian soldier and I'm a free historian. I look after all infos about WW2 US airborne. This grave is maybe one of these heroes. Thanks for your help.” The site also lets people leave virtual flowers—including ones animated with sparkly GIFs—on the gravestones of a loved one. Gene Phillips has uploaded 22,825 photos and fulfilled over 4,000 requests since 2007. In 2011, when his wife died, he added her memorial to the site.
Find a Grave highlights particularly interesting success stories, too, like this one:
I recently received an email from someone in my home state who had sold their house and were moving to Florida. When packing they found an old photo [album] they had bought at a garage sale in another town and forgotten. In looking through it, they found a picture of my husband's grandparent's headstone. They typed in the names on Google and came up with my name and Find A Grave. They got my email from my bio and contacted me. In an act of extreme kindness they sent the album which is probably 50 years old and seems to have been put together by my mother-in-law's cousin. Everyone in it is gone. To me, this is an amazing story, and I'm thankful that I joined this site.
And this one:
I just wanted to let you know that the Find A Grave site yielded some important personal closure for a veteran of my generation, our war on Vietnam. Long story short - I replaced a guy who was killed by a rocket in 1971. One of the guys I worked with survived that attack but never was able to find the grave of the guy who died. A friend told me about your site so I just plugged in the guy's name and there it was. I forwarded the information to my old buddy who survived the attack & he appreciates this information beyond belief.
Find A Grave isn't a beautiful website. Its odd fonts and liberal use of clipart don't exactly scream, "welcome to the future." But in lots of ways Find A Grave represents future of how we will interact with our family histories. It lets us reach out across space to strangers to ask them for something that is digital to replace something that is physical. Where we once visited graves in person with real steadily wilting flowers, today we can load up a digital memorial—a photograph of a grave and a pile of pixel based flowers and tributes.
In the end, I am pretty confident that I found Rose Victor. Or at least the person who Jason Victor was looking for. There was no Rose Victor in Section 2, Block 6, Gate 24. But there was an Eva Victor. And while Jason Victor listed her death date as August 30, 1921, Eva Victor’s gravestone says she died on August 29th of the same year.
Mount Judah has an online tool to look up relatives. I searched for Eva Victor, and got nothing, even with photographic proof that an Eva Victor headstone lives in Section 2, Block 6, Gate 24. Her grave stone is on the left, in the seventh row, which is what I think L07 means. But a Rose Victor is listed on the Mount Judah site, with the same details Jason Victor gave to Find a Grave. I tried to reach Jason to see if perhaps Rose Victor’s first name was really Eva, but I haven’t heard back. “It can be very difficult,” Kenney says. “We’ve gone out many days and come back empty-handed.”