Norma Storrs Keating—a professional genealogist for over 20 years—was stumped. She was working on a project for a client named Emmett (name has been changed), but could find no trace of his maternal grandmother.
Emmett has been estranged from his mother for a few years, his father passed away when he was only 10 years old, and his grandfather passed away right before they started the project. Therefore, Norma had no way of getting information from any living relatives.
Through some digging, Norma found out that the lady who lived with Emmett’s family when he was little was not his grandmother like he had thought all these years—it was actually his great-grandmother! It appeared that Emmett’s grandmother had left somehow—whether that was by death or divorce, she didn’t know. No one knew what her name was, where or when she has born, or when she died. She was a mystery!
Norma had hit a pretty substantial brick wall.
So she decided to start finding all the information she could about Emmett’s great-grandmother who died when Emmett was about eight years old. Her family had come from Europe in the early 1900s to Utah where most of them were buried. Norma was able to find their headstones in Utah, their obituaries, and tied them all together but was still lacking any information about Emmett’s grandmother.
Then one day Emmett’s wife called Norma and said, “You’ve got to go to this website and look at this. I think I found her!”
Sure enough, Norma went to BillionGraves where she found that a woman they didn’t know had been buried the middle of a cemetery plot that was occupied by relatives of Emmett’s great-grandmother. The name seemed like it could be her and the death date was just a few days after Emmett’s mother was born.
Based on the evidence pieced together from her headstone and obituary, Norma discovered that Emmett’s grandmother had died 4-5 days after giving birth to Emmett’s mother. That was why she had been raised by her grandmother. And, because of her unexpected death, Emmett’s grandma was buried in the family plot with her husband’s relatives instead of hers.
“I can’t tell you how excited we were!” Norma said.
But that wasn’t all. Because Norma finally had her name and birth dates, she was able to find valuable information from obituaries and other records that helped them trace the family back 4-5 generations to West Virginia. It turned out those relatives were instrumental in settling West Virginia in the 1700s before they migrated to Utah.
“So it totally opened that whole thing up, it was just amazing,” Norma told me. “We had a huge breakthrough just because of BillionGraves!”
This find was especially meaningful to Emmett because he found out that he shared a name with his grandmother. Emmett was his grandmother’s maiden name.
This meant so much to Emmett who hadn’t had a lot of family connections throughout his life. “It gave him a sense of family that he didn’t have before.” Norma said. “It’s opened up a whole new vista for him…and it’s given him a real good sense of who he is.”
The records found on BillionGraves are unique because they are mapped out according to GPS location and can be viewed as if you are standing right there in the cemetery. Without it, Norma would have had to wait until the next time she was in Utah to walk through the cemetery without any guarantee of even finding the right block.
“We never would have found his grandmother’s grave if BillionGraves hadn’t presented the cemetery the way they do,” Norma said, “where we can look at who’s buried around an individual in a visual way.”
Norma uses a couple other headstone databases to search for her clients’ relatives and “all of them approach it from a different view.” She pointed out. “But in this case, [the GPS coordinates on BillionGraves] made a huge, huge difference.”
Many people have been asking us lately why they can’t submit photos taken with traditional cameras to the BillionGraves database. The BillionGraves database is unique in that it contains GPS information.
By adding GPS data to each headstone image, cemetery and location data is attached to the image. This means that when you are researching your ancestors, you’ll be able to search for the transcribed headstone, see an image of that headstone, find out where in the world that headstone is located, and learn more about the cemetery it was found in. This wealth of information will make a big difference in your research.
GPS Makes Visiting the Cemetery Easier
Along the same vein, the GPS data allows you to visit a cemetery in person and walk directly to the headstone you want to view in the cemetery. The free Mobile Records Search on your iPhone or Android device is handy for finding the headstone you’re looking for. So if it’s your first time in a particular cemetery, you’ll be able to find that headstone in no time. And if you’ve been to that cemetery dozens of times? No more counting trees, memorizing certain fence posts, or documenting the number of paces to find your loved one.
You Can Find Other Relatives Buried in the Same Cemetery
Another advantage of keeping the GPS information with the headstone images is that it allows you to see all other headstones located in that cemetery. How great is it that you can see direct neighbors of the headstone you’re researching? This is a huge help in making valuable family history connections. You’ll be able to find relatives you didn’t know existed.
Not all GPS’s are Created Equal
What about cameras with GPS data in them? We’ve looked into using those photos, and the GPS is neither accurate nor reliable enough to use in our database. With our phone app, we can verify that users are in a cemetery, and because of this, information about cemeteries and locations is standardized in our database. So, at this time, we aren’t accepting photos from cameras, even if they have GPS.
You Can Still Add Additional Photos to BillionGraves Records
What if you have a photo of a headstone for a record that already exists? You can add that photo to the record! From the History tab on any Records View, you can add both personal histories and any additional photos of the person or the headstone. These photos do not have to be GPS encoded, since they are tied to the BillionGraves record with the GPS encoded headstone photo. This is a great way to create a robust record for your ancestors.
Thanks for your participation in BillionGraves! If you have additional questions, contact support.
Wow! We’ve had record uploads every day so far in May! Keep up the good work—we’ll still need thousands more images, so let’s make the weekends our highest uploading days. Keep watching that Leaderboard to see how you’re doing—if you are among the top 25 transcribers OR picture takers on May 31, you get your choice of a free BillionGraves t-shirt or one free year of our great BillionGraves Plus Account.
It’s more fun to head to the cemetery with other people—plus, you can photograph an entire cemetery in just a few hours if you join forces!
Create a Facebook event to help you get the word out to your friends and family. You’ll be able to set up a meeting time and location for everyone to meet up and take pictures.
Facebook’s instructions on how to create an event:
- Go to the Events tab on the left side of your home page
- Click Create Event in the upper-right corner of the page
From here, you can customize the event, edit its privacy settings and invite guests. Please note that you must include an event name and time. For more information about Facebook events, click here.
Here is a template you can use to tell your friends and family about your event and answer some of the questions they may have:
Come join me at the cemetery to clean, photograph and document grave markers!
We will be photographing the headstones using the free BillionGraves iPhone and Android application.
What should I bring?
Bring your iPhone, Android phone or tablet (must have GPS), or your 3G iPad2 or 3G iPad3 (the 3G internet versions have GPS, the WiFi only do not have GPS), fully charged with the BillionGraves app already installed (download links are down below). Bring your car charger if you have one (GPS uses a lot of battery).
Register for an account and/or log in to the app before coming.
Do I need an iPhone or Android phone?
No. Many times the vital information on the grave markers are covered with grass clippings, leaves, flowers, pinwheels, or other decorations. We could use help clearing the markers of these items, so a photograph can be taken, then put the decorations back as they were.
If you do not have a device to take pictures with:
- Bring a soft broom or car snow brush to clean off grass and leaves.
- Bring a pair of gloves just in case a headstone has mud covering parts of it and needs the mud/dirt cleared off by hand.
- Bring a blanket to cast a shadow on gravestones that are facing the sun. The picture taker’s shadow and the reflection of the sunlight can make it difficult to read the vital information on the headstone.
- Bring your children. This is an excellent opportunity to help your children develop an appreciation for family history.
- You can also borrow a device from a willing friend or family member.
Can I use my digital camera?
Not to take pictures of the headstones, but you can bring one to document our activity and your family’s participation in this great work. There are other grave-finding websites that accept photos taken without GPS coordinates, but BillionGraves is the only service that has that important information.
More about BillionGraves
The BillionGraves apps are easy to use and free to install on your iOS and Android devices. The app geotags each picture you take with the exact GPS coordinates of the gravestone, making it a valuable resource for genealogy and family history enthusiasts searching for their ancestors. After taking the photos, you will upload the pictures to the BillionGraves.com website where thousands of volunteers are transcribing the images almost as quickly as they are added. Transcribing is also free. Once the records are transcribed, they are available to be searched, for free of course, by anybody who visits the BillionGraves.com website. Users can also find the exact, physical locations of their ancestors’ final resting places, and the app will actually direct them to their locations.
We hope to see as many people as possible attend. With enough participants, we can easily photograph the entire cemetery. Thank you!
There’s a new BillionGraves Android update available on Google Play. With this update, in-app purchases are GONE. You can perform Mobile Records Searches for free from your phone or tablet. Get the update, and then go to the Records section in your app and try it out if you haven’t already.
Other features in this new update:
- Favorites: You can save your favorite headstone images on your phone so you can access them quickly and regularly.
- Nearby Headstones: See what headstones are in your proximity.
- Cemeteries Visited: From your Dashboard in the app, you can see a list of all the cemeteries you’ve visited.
Go get the update today!
Lynn Cassity from The Family Chronicle Magazine has highlighted BillionGraves in the March/April edition of the publication. You can purchase a copy or subscribe to the magazine here: http://www.familychronicle.com/current3.htm
On her genealogy blog, Red de Antepasados reviewed BillionGraves and interviewed our own Rob Moncur. BillionGraves is gaining momentum in Spain: http://redantepasados.blogspot.com/2012/02/entrevista-billion-graves-hacer-facil.html#.TzucwsVSffg
RootsTech 2012: Dick Eastman posted a picture of the BillionGraves booth at RootsTech this year: http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2012/02/rootstech-2012-day-2-with-pictures.html
Marko Viitanen attended the panel discussion at RootsTech that BillionGraves participated in. He gave positive feedback on BillionGraves: http://marko.viitanen.org/2012/02/rootstech/
Back in December, Steve Hayes reviewed BillionGraves on his genealogy blog, highlighting the GPS capabilities of our app: http://hayesgreene.blogspot.com/2011/12/billion-graves.html