The website Find A Grave was started in 1995 by a man named Jim Tipton, as an amateur tribute site for celebrity graves. It became a commercial site in 1998 and began posting photos, submitted by other people, of non-celebrity graves. Genealogists and families who were unable to visit relatives’ gravesites loved it.
Tipton sold Find A Grave to Ancestry.com Inc. in 2013, which improved the site and built its audience. There are now 190 million memorials (a memorial is a dedicated page to a person) and more than 80 million photographs of headstones and other markers on the website, from every continent including Antarctica, making it “the largest international graving community in the world,” the company says.
“Thousands of contributors submit new listings, updates, corrections, photographs and virtual flowers every hour,” Ancestry says. “The site simply wouldn’t exist without the million+ contributors.”
The work of finding those graves, taking photos and uploading them, and transcribing inscriptions and markers, is crowdsourced to volunteers like Eileen Mayberry, a “Find-A-Graver” who lives in Southern Illinois.
Eileen and her husband moved to McLeansboro, Illinois, two hours southeast of St. Louis, to be near family after her husband retired from the Air Force. She is also retired, after working as a florist.
“I started going to cemeteries, looking for headstones of my family,” she says. “I used Find A Grave to help me. In 2013 I saw requests on the site from people wanting photos from graves in the same cemetery. There were 150 requests for just that one cemetery. So I would walk the cemetery, looking for those people too, and put the photos on Find A Grave. Invariably I would get even more requests: Did you see his wife buried next to him?, or, Were there other Smiths? So I would go back. Eventually I saw it would be a lot easier to photograph the whole cemetery.”
Eileen has photographed 86 cemeteries in the region—37 of them twice, because after walking the cemeteries for Find a Grave she deleted the photos, but the county historical society wanted photos of the headstones for their own project, so she went out and shot them all again. “I have got every cemetery in Hamilton County done,” she says, “unless they’re out in the woods or on somebody’s private property.”
In nearby White County, “Their records were so bad I would photograph the graves of 200 to 300 people they didn’t even know were in the cemeteries. Headstones are falling over and so worn you can’t read them anymore. If you wait another 50 years, they’re going to be gone.”
Some stones were thin marble, simply pushed into the dirt at installation, without proper bases. Bigger, granite tombstones had sunk into the ground. Those made of slate, limestone, or sandstone (all local materials) were worn nearly blank by weather. Temporary tin markers used by funeral homes were sometimes never replaced with permanent headstones.
“I go out and walk these cemeteries”—volunteers call it “mowing the rows,” Eileen tells me—“and it makes me feel bad when I get to a headstone and can’t read it. Sometimes I get transcripts from the cemeteries so I can cross-reference names and dates by a few letters or numbers. Otherwise that person’s lost. Nobody’s left alive who knows who that was.”
Other markers are just gone. “Farmers have farmed in closer and closer and closer and closer to the cemeteries,” she says. “I have been out in a field with [other volunteers] and dug up a headstone. The rest of the stones had been shoved down into a creek by the farmer. Unfortunately, it has happened down here a lot.”
A photograph cannot be added to the website by Find A Grave members, like Eileen, until a memorial page has been made for the deceased. Eileen checks to see if a page exists, creates a memorial page if necessary, then uploads her photos.
To date she has created 11,870 memorial pages and added 38,474 photos to the site. It is a phenomenal effort, and even I am in her debt; she took the photo of the headstone of my paternal grandparents.
Eileen has friends, family, and other volunteer colleagues who are Find-A-Gravers too, and they stay in touch over their efforts. Her husband is not one but has often driven her to cemeteries in his old pickup on the gravel roads, sat in his truck “for an hour or two,” and listened to music and watched her walk back and forth. For vacations they sometimes drive to nearby Metropolis, Illinois, and camp at Fort Massac State Park. Eileen prints out a list of local grave requests before they go. Last October she had 150 requests and walked two or three cemeteries, while her husband watched TV in the travel trailer in the campground.
“It’s very relaxing,” she says. “It’s good exercise to walk a big cemetery.”
“I’ve only been scared twice,” she noted.
Once, she was “standing in a cemetery out in the middle of nowhere” and heard something running toward her. She is deaf in one ear and cannot tell which direction things are coming from. “This thing came running toward me and jumped in my face,” she says. “I was standing out there, screaming.” It was a Cocker Spaniel from a nearby house, who wanted to play.
“Another cemetery was really remote, and I was there all by myself. It was Fall, and there were a lot of leaves on the ground. I heard footsteps, and I would stop to look around but didn’t see or hear anything. When I stopped, it stopped. My ex-boss at the flower shop kept giving me stories about people seeing a bear down around the Walpole area, so I thought, ‘There’s something big in the woods, and it’s following me, it must be a wolf or a bear, not a deer.’ The hair on my neck was standing up.” She finally saw that it was a horse, in a nearby woods, following her at a distance.
“Since I started doing this, I started seeing cemeteries everywhere I go,” Eileen says. “I guess it’s gotten into my blood.” She understands the invaluable national service she and other volunteers provide.
“If people are looking for family, or friends, or classmates they went to school with who have passed away, they can find those people if we take the photos or make the memorials. If we don’t take them now, next week or next year that stone might not be there, or not be able to be read anymore. We’re preserving history. We’re like an army.
“When I first started, there were a lot [of volunteers]. Now we’re like a vast army.”