Recently, I did something I’d been waiting to do for a while: I long interviewed the person who, I discovered last year, had uploaded my grandparents’ graves to the Ancestry-owned site Find A Grave.
In case you may have missed this discovery, I blogged about it last year, and the deeper emotions and memories it brought up to realize that the first time I’d ever seen my grandma’s grave marker would be on the internet, documented by a stranger. I had always been interested in the semi-anonymous C.R., the Find A Grave user who created memorials for both my grandparents and had maintained or made more than 11,800 memorial pages on the site over the past decade. At the time of the blog, I sent a message to C.R. on Find A Grave, but didn’t expect to hear back.
And then, several months later, I got a message. I gave C.R. my number, and over the past year we’ve been playing a bit of phone tag, where I’ll text them, and they’ll call, and I miss it, and then I think about texting back again, but don’t. I thought it would be nice to finally give C.R. that long-overdue call, and ask them a few burning questions I had about this Find A Grave hobby. And so last week, we finally got to chat. Carol, who requested I not use her last name, was a joy to talk with, and more than anything, I appreciated being able to thank her for giving me the opportunity to see my grandparents’ grave markers. Below is our interview, heavily edited for length and clarity. A big thank you again to Carol for all of her time again, as well.
How did you get into memorializing grave markers?
Carol: I actually started researching my family tree. My dad’s sister, my aunt, had started years ago. While I was working on that, on Ancestry, this “hint” popped up for Find a Grave. There’s a Catholic cemetery down there, and that’s where a lot of the family are buried. Between Ancestry and Find a Grave, I was actually able to trace a large part of my grandmother’s family that way, and managed to get the majority of them “linked” to each other, so if you go on there, you can see her parents, her siblings, and her kids. It makes it a lot easier when somebody’s working on Ancestry and trying to trace their family.
I’ve managed to connect with a distant cousin that lives down in Kentucky, for what I was doing. My mom’s dad, his side of the family came over from Germany in the 1860s, and I had kind of gotten stuck on his dad’s dad [Carol’s great-great grandfather], because I don’t read German. Last summer I had a gal in Berlin contact me through Find a Grave. They were trying to figure out if my great great grandfather was the brother of her mom’s grandfather. And it actually turned out that I think that’s where it is. So I got a little more information there and found out who his parents were from them.
It was really kind of neat to be contacted by somebody like that, and I was actually able to help her straighten out [some relatives]. But that’s kind of how I got started. Well, the St. Charles Memorial Gardens, where your grandparents are buried. That cemetery is so huge.
Yeah, I remember [my grandpa’s grave] plot, it’s like a lot of rolling hills through the cemetery.
Carol: It’s actually right across from where my mom and dad are buried [in St. Charles Memorial Gardens]. I know that the number of memorials the cemetery shows is not the total number of graves. I’d say there are at least hundreds if not thousands [more] of them. They gave me a map of the cemetery with the different sections, and I just started going through and photographing all of the markers. And then I would bring it home and plug the SD card into my computer and download the pictures. And then I would go through the pictures by section and whatever photographs I had, if that person didn’t already have a [Find a Grave] memorial, then I created it. Because some of the markers just have years on them, I would try to find the dates through an obituary. And I went around and photographed the entire cemetery at one point probably, six years ago now.
I grew up across the street from three cemeteries in my teenage years and I spent a lot of time up there with my brother’s dog, walking around. Some of the stones dated back [to the] early 1800s, late 1700s. That’s when they used to make the big stones, markers and very ornate things. I don’t really care for the markers that are in Memorial Gardens because they’re all flat. I think the upright ones are prettier, you can do more with them.
Do you have preferences for which stones you prefer?
Carol: [Laughs] Yeah, I’ve told my daughter, “If you put me in a cemetery this is where I want you to put me because I want an upright marker.” I don’t like the flat ones. The flatness of them, that is more just a convenience for the cemetery so they can just run a lawnmower right over them.
Does documenting grave markers feel like a hobby?
Carol: Yeah, it’s just more of a hobby that stemmed from trying to trace my family. There’s a trade around here. There’s one gal that used to live up here, she had actually created the memorial for my mom to start off with. Because if you go on the website and pull a memorial up, at the bottom of the memorial it’ll tell you who actually created it, and then who the owner is.
You have over 11,000 memorial pages now?
Carol: Yeah. Sounds about right. A lot of those ones are ones that I’ve created, there are some that I have transferred off to other people. And then there’s some that I’ve had transferred to me because they were family members or really close friends. But I never meant for it to be that big.
How many hours have you spent doing this?
Carol: I couldn’t even give you a ballpark. I would go out and spend four or five hours in the afternoon doing photography … I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lost track of time, and end up working on uploading and searching for another four or five hours. For two or three years I was putting in probably 30-40 hours a week working on it for a while. I had to go back to a regular job, and then I moved. I’ve had some projects that I’ve been working on in my house, and that’s taken up more time. I still kind of mess with it a little bit here and there.
What has made it so enjoyable for you?
Carol: Just the feeling of when somebody messages you and says, “Thank you for doing this,” or, “I just found my great grandmother’s grave now because of this.” So the time and effort that I put into it has come back because somebody has acknowledged the work that you’ve done, the time that you’ve put into it, and is appreciative of it. With the photo requests, most people have been very appreciative of it. I’ve had very few people who’ve gotten their panties in a twist, so to speak.
What are some of the most emotional reactions you’ve gotten?
Carol: There was a boy, he was kind of a teenager, in one of the cemeteries that I did, it was a small cemetery. And the family ended up reaching out to me and asking me if I would remove the cemetery. They didn’t want people to know where he was buried because they didn’t want the grave desecrated. Because he had apparently been bullied and threatened, and not treated very nicely. And so I went in and changed it to “location unknown.” So his memorial’s still there for the family, but nobody knows exactly where it’s at except them.
I had the last gal, her mom had died. She’d been dead several years. And she was all irate, “Who gave you permission to do this?” and “What right do you have?” It’s like, well OK, this has been up here for four or five years, and you’re just now getting on here and wanting to create something? She ended up creating [her own memorial], for whatever reason, so I just ended up having Find a Grave merge them, because I had information on there that she didn’t have. It’s like, you could have just said, “Hey, can you just transfer this to me?” But she was new to the site and very irate.
Have you ever had strange experiences while documenting grave markers?
Carol: Yeah, the workers up at St. Charles Memorial Gardens, when people started doing it, they would actually go out and try to chase some people off. They have since gotten over that. Yeah, people will be out there visiting graves, ‘cause you’re standing over a camera in your hand and you’re going from one to the next, to the next, to the next, and they kind of look at you. It’s like, yeah I’m not really a creep.
There’s a cemetery in St. Charles that the city owns called Oak Grove. The head caretaker is super nice. One of my siblings died when he was 18 months old. I knew about where he was buried, but over the years you have a tendency to forget. That gentleman, he had some little white wooden crosses, and he actually put my brother’s name on one with his date, and took it out there and put it on his grave for me so I could find it.
There was a gentleman out there one day, and he had just recently lost his wife. And he stopped me and talked to me for a little while, and he just needed somebody to talk to. And I told him what I was doing. But finding some of the obituaries, especially some of the ones that have had newspaper articles about it. There’s some of that’s really heart-wrenching. And it kind of makes you realize that, okay, maybe my life’s not so bad. [Laugh]
Is there anything you’ve learned about what a gravemarker might indicate?
Carol: Some of them it’s kind of sad. You can tell people haven’t been out there in a long time. There were some that I saw that the stone underneath the markers was cracked. And I said something about it to them at the office, and they’re like, “Unless a family member requests something, we don’t do anything about it.” Memorial Gardens, it’s a hefty price.
When I was writing that piece about finding my grandmother’s grave marker online last year, it definitely made me realize that I don’t really have the closure that I thought I did, and it made me be a lot more thoughtful about what happened and the family drama involved. Regardless, it was really nice to be able to see that and show that to my dad, too.
Carol: Yeah, and if there’s something that you would like added into those bios, send it to me, and I will add it in there.
I do appreciate you saying that. That means a lot.
Carol: Yeah, not a problem. Because I know what the family drama stuff is like.
Is there anything else that you would want people to know?
Carol: I mean, it sounds weird. It’s kind of a weird hobby. But people are gone, and it’s an easy way to remember them. There is a function on there that you can leave flowers on the memorial pages, which I think is really cool. I go in there periodically when I’m thinking about my mom, and my dad, and will leave something, especially around the holidays. My mom and I were very close when she died. She was a special person. I talked to her probably almost every day. If I didn’t talk to her for a couple of days, she would call me. “You okay, what’s going on?” And that, so that was hard to lose.
I have always been interested in history. And I think where you come from, the people that you come from, influences how you’re raised. I think it’s kind of important to look at all that sometimes. Not everybody feels that way.