I was recently introduced to Find-A-Grave, a website that offers far more than I imagined. My wife, Sharon, has been active in our family’s genealogy for several years. As trees took shape, I found that I began to share her interest, but there was little I could do to add to the process.
In the course of her research, Sharon accessed many websites that have acted as valuable tools in uncovering information; some very important, some only marginally so. I would look on and absorb that which interested me, until the next interesting thing was discovered and noted.
Everything changed about a month ago, when she finally became a contributing member of Find-A-Grave. For those of you who aren’t “in the know”, this is a website that catalogues cemeteries and all the information they hold, through volunteers. Some volunteers transfer information that is already online and can upload a cemetery’s complete burial records. Others, like my wife, prefer to actually visit a cemetery and photograph headstones by request to upload to memorial pages.
At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this – or if I felt anything at all. I didn’t really give it much consideration, as all of the genealogy stuff had been done from the comfort of our home, until now. It didn’t really hit me until Sharon asked if I would like to go along when she attempted to find her first headstone. It sounded interesting, as long as the weather cooperated!
Before I go any further, I know that some might wonder why anyone would want a photo of a headstone. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that my wife uses these pictures on the internet site that houses the family tree – along with photos of the deceased relative, when possible. The headstones provide names and dates, but more importantly, an actual view of a final resting place that might not otherwise be seen; something concrete to replace the picture in one’s mind.
Our first mission ended badly, as somehow some wires got crossed and we were looking for two headstones in the wrong cemetery. The second time around, we were looking for an infant’s stone. And this is where I became hooked. We found that little stone marker, flat on the ground, under a few inches of water. We were so disappointed at not being able to fulfill this wish, that I grabbed an empty water bottle from my truck and began sucking up the water with it. As quickly as I removed it, the water seeped back in to cover the stone. I removed my sweatshirt and tried to sop up the water, just long enough for Sharon to snap a photo. It was not to be. We left cold and defeated.
In contacting the woman who requested the photo, we learned that the child in the grave was her baby girl. Born in December of 1983, she was called home shortly after, in February 1984. Her mom had left the area in 1988, but wanted to once again see the grave marker that she had chosen to lay above the tiny casket. My wife and I put ourselves in her shoes; how does anyone survive the loss of a child? This child was born perfectly healthy with ten fingers and toes. As her mother explained in an e-mail, she contracted an unidentified virus that her tiny body could not overcome. We felt her anguish as we thought about our own children, and how lucky we know we are to never have faced anything like this tragedy.
As the days grew longer and the sun became stronger, we were able to revisit the cemetery, carefully clean the baby’s marker and send a picture to her waiting mother (thousands of miles away). In the meantime, we visited several other cemeteries and snapped more photos to fulfill other requests. One was from a woman who asked, in broken English, for a picture of her grandfather’s headstone. She had never met him. I think about being the bridge for this, and other connections, and am humbled. Walking among the headstones, pausing to read and wonder about those for whom they were erected, is a special journey. In the span of an afternoon, sorrow is replaced with contentment when we find an amusing epitaph or a hearty soul who lived well into his nineties. It is a time of connection; not only with the requester and the deceased, but also with my wife. Conversation is initiated, thoughts provoked. There is time to reflect and be thankful. We intend to continue our grave-hunting, as we affectionately refer to it, for the foreseeable future. We certainly come away with more fulfillment than we could ever provide.
- Dennis O'Brian, Property Manager