In Search of Your Ancestors?
A column on genealogy by George Farris

October 21, 2011

25. "Find A Grave" - Another potentially useful genealogy research tool

In past columns I've discussed several web sites that may be of some value to you in conducting your own family history research - some, such as, that are becoming essential tools for researchers and some, such as Rootsweb WorldConnect that must be used with considerable caution. Since it's often quite difficult to travel to all the places where various branches of your ancestors lived to conduct on-site research, mechanisms for accessing source records from these place via the Internet can sometimes provide viable alternatives that are more readily available and easier to use than microfilm records obtained through LDS Family History Centers.

One such web site that I have not addressed previously is - which can be a useful alternative to traveling to the cemeteries where your ancestors were interred. In column number 4 of this series I addressed cemeteries and tombstones as sources of information that you may not find anywhere else. Find A Grave has existed for many years but, in the past, it had seemed to me that it's database was not extensive enough to be of very much value to researchers. However, over the years, a large number of volunteers have become contributors and have photographed tombstones in most of the cemeteries in the United States - plus some in other countries and these have been indexed so that the database can be efficiently searched for tombstones of specific people.

Other potentially useful features of Find A Grave are the ability to include textual biographical information on the page for an individual and the ability to link the "memorial" for an individual to memorials of that person's parents and spouse. Including such a link automatically generates the reverse link from the parent to the child or between spouses.

Photo by Constance Schaffer
An example of how that works can be found starting with the memorial for one of my grandmothers, Henrietta Amelia Nicol Farris at a cemetery in Iowa. From that page there are links to her parents - including to her father Alexander Francis Nicol. If you follow that link you will find on his memorial a link to his mother, Amelia Henrietta Stockman Elliott, in Montana. And if you follow that link you will find on her memorial an example of the second feature, a biography for Amelia, my This is a bio that I wrote and provided to Russ Anderson who maintains the information for that memorial. Her memorial also includes a link to the memorial for her second husband, David Elliott, who is an ancester of Russ through David's first wife.

In this case, the person maintaining the memorial on has a personal connection to these individuals and is interested in any information regarding them - and is responsive in adding it. That is not always the case, however. For instance the person currently maintaining the memorials for my grandparents and gr. grandparents has no relationship to them and is not quite as responsive. That illustrates one of the problems inherent in Find A Grave - although that specific issue can be addressed if necessary since the rules give priority to direct descendants so you can request that such memorials be transferred to you to administer if you want to take responsibility for them.

These situations arise from the method that the owners of the Find A Grave web site and associated database used to encourage many people to photograph all the tombstones in cemeteries that were near them and to add this information to the database. The memorials that individuals add are credited to them - and many people appear to compete to add as many as they can. Some volunteers have added several hundred thousand memorials. While this results in a far more extensive and complete database, and makes it far more likely that tombstones will be photographed and recorded before they become illegible, it also means that many memorials "belong to" individuals who have no knowledge of or particular interest in the lives and relationships of the deceased individuals that the memorials represent. That can result in errors that may not be easy to get corrected if the person is maintaining many thousands of such memorials.

While I, personally, don't care for the "score keeping" aspects of Find A Grave, I do appreciate what has been accomplished in photographically documenting and indexing a huge number of cemeteries. This can be observed locally by searching for cemeteries in Anderson and Roane Counties in Tennessee on Find A Grave - resulting in finding over 500 documented burial grounds with photos. These range from very small family plots to very large cemeteries. Local genealogical societies everywhere have been documenting cemeteries for decades in "cemetery books" which they sell. But there is no way to search these on-line and if you don't know where a particular ancestor is buried it's very difficult to locate a grave via these documents. A consolidated, searchable, on-line database with photos is a huge step forward and represents an approach that was technically and logistically impossible in past decades.

However, the cemetery books published by local genealogical societies have one inherent advantage over the Find A Grave listings in that they often include information about burials that do not have tombstones - information added from the cemetery burial records and from local obituaries. They also may include information from tombstones that were readable in the past but that had deteriorated before being photographed for Find A Grave. So both sources are likely to be of value and neither should be neglected in your research.

You may have mixed feelings regarding the results of searches for graves of some of your ancestors using Find A Grave. You may be delighted to find photos of graves that you never could have visited in person - but you may also be frustrated by the fact that the persons responsible for some of them don't know anything at all about the person they are "memorializing" and are not very responsive to queries or suggestions or additional information that you may have about the person. You may even encounter situations similar to one I discovered recently that involves the cemetery where some of my ancestors are buried in Jefferson County, Illinois. There are two cemeteries in different parts of the county called Hope Cemetery and New Hope Cemetery. They have no relationship to each other but, as of today, in Find A Grave they are listed as being the same cemetery - and there is an intermixture of memorials from both cemeteries. I've pointed this out to the administrators of Find A Grave and, perhaps, this will be fixed some day. In column number 4 of this series I included some photos of the broken tombstone of one of my grandfathers. His grave and that of my, both in the New Hope Cemetery, were not included in the above cemetery listing and I was about to add memorials for them when I realized the problem.

While you may encounter some frustrations in using Find A Grave such as not finding a memorial for a grave that you know exists - or unresponsive administrators or errors that are difficult to get corrected, you may also find it rewarding to find photos of graves of ancestors and relatives in cemeteries that you cannot personally visit. However, as you probably realize all to well, genealogy is not easy or simple in most cases and you need to utilize as many different research mechanisms as possible. Find A Grave is just another source to add to your genealogical research tool kit.

Previous Columns in this series

1. Beginning your search
2. "Source Data"
3. More About Data Sources
4. Additional Data Sources
5. LDS and Data From Other Countries
6. Census Records
7. Military Records
8. Land Records
9. More About Land Records
10. Land Records as a Source of Family Information
11. Wills and Probate Records as Sources of Family Information
12. Biographies, Obituaries, Old Newspapers, and Family Lore
13. Sharing Family History Research
14. Some Genealogy Web Sites to Use With Caution
15. Genealogy & Local History
16. Tracking One Specific Ancestor
17. What Next?
18. Tracking One Specific Ancestor - 2
19. Importance of Family Groups in Tracking Ancestors
20. Two new on-line genealogy research tools
21. Some books for family history researchers
22. Census time again
23. A tale of the professor and the horse thief
24. Family artifacts, mementos, letters, etc. as a source of genealogy information

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