Paul Smith (also known as “Graving Guy” at his local historical society) has found a LOT of interesting things in cemeteries. Most of them he wasn’t even looking for in the first place.
“For me, that’s the big advantage of doing the photographing. I mean, you never know who you’ll find.”
Paul loves going out and taking pictures in cemeteries then going home and researching some of the people he found that day. Usually he’ll have specific people he’s looking for but sometimes, he says,
“When I get to the cemeteries, I find people I’m not looking for.”
Paul lived in over 20 different places as a child, but ended up in Wichita, Kansas. Although he didn’t have any familial connections when he first moved to Wichita, he was determined to find at least one.
That was the case last year when he came across Mary Jeffries’ headstone. When Paul looked her up, much to his surprise she was the daughter to Sarah Swartz, Paul’s great-grandfather’s sister.
He had found his great-grandfather’s niece and his own Wichita connection without even knowing it!
After researching Mary Jeffries, Paul found out she had a grandson whose burial records had been lost in a funeral home fire. His grave hadn’t been photographed by anyone yet, so Paul had no idea what cemetery he could be in.
“The odds of me finding him anytime soon [were very slim],” Paul said. “I figured if I were to ever find him, I would have to stumble upon him.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Paul was actually looking for another headstone in the White Chapel cemetery in Wichita, Kansas when he looked down and saw Hiram Jeffries’ headstone. He was absolutely thrilled!
As he’s out in the cemeteries, sometimes Paul will talk to the cemetery staff and find out more about the people buried there. That’s how he found the grave of Solomon Butler, the first African-American from Kansas to compete in the Olympics.
“I find that just being respectful to them oftentimes can help break the ice. And another thing I’ve done…is develop a relationship with them. I sometimes just go and visit and I’ve also offered to help. That helps build a better relationship with them. So it’s not always just me going in and saying ‘Hey I can’t find this grave.’ It shows that you care about them as people and it’s respecting what they do.
That won’t always guarantee that you can get around if they have a no-photograph policy but maybe you can build up a trust to see that you’re there to do more than take photographs.”
Paul also suggested that anyone taking pictures should always check all sides of the headstones. He hasn’t always photographed all sides of the headstone, but one day he came across this on the back of a headstone and was amazed at the story it told:
Paul has a special respect and is always on the lookout for veterans because both his father and brother were veterans. One of his most memorable finds was this monument for Father Kapaun—a chaplain for the United States Army who died as a prisoner of war in Korea. He was buried in Korea, but has been honored and remembered with a couple memorials in Kansas.
Paul has found dozens of treasures just by exploring the cemeteries near his home and researching the people he finds there. His dedication is remarkable and he is truly making a difference in his corner of the world—just ask anyone who found a picture of their family member’s headstone because of him!
These incredible stories are just a few examples of treasures anyone can find in their local cemetery. All it takes is a little curiosity, time, and a love for those who have gone before us.
Not very many people can say they visited a cemetery for their wedding anniversary, but Colette Hokanson can. In fact, last year’s anniversary was her first time taking pictures for BillionGraves; she and her husband downloaded it before dinner and then visited the their local cemetery afterwards.
They enjoyed it so much, they visited 3 more cemeteries that very weekend.
Colette was hooked on BillionGraves. She continued taking pictures for BillionGraves throughout the next year with her family on Saturday mornings and occasionally on family trips. Each time she passes a cemetery, she begs her family to let her stop so they can take pictures.
One day, a friend asked Colette if she had any suggestions for an upcoming “Day of Service” their church had planned. Colette told her about BillionGraves and her friend loved the idea. They set it up so each congregation would be in charge of taking photos at different cemeteries throughout Oregon and northern California.
They held their “Day of Service” on September 14th, 2013 and had over 327 volunteers from 7 congregations participated in photographing 8 cemeteries. Together, they ended up taking over 17,000 photographs and were featured in an article in their local paper the next morning.
“The thing that was really cool was just to see all the people that all of a sudden got turned onto finding out more about their family.” Colette said. “It’s interesting how when you’re out there taking pictures. It turns your heart, you [think] ‘Wow, these were real people. I want to learn more about my family; where are they buried?'”
But that wasn’t only great thing that happened that day.
Colette’s congregation was assigned to the Central Point Cemetery because she knew she had a great-uncle (John Daley) buried there and she wanted to find where he was at. She instructed everyone to keep an eye out for any headstones with the name “Daley.” Coincidentally enough, her husband found her uncle’s headstone surrounded by some of his family members.
However, after they had finished taking photographs, one of Colette’s friends—Kristina—said she found two babies’ headstones in the corner of the cemetery with the last name of Daley: Daisy Bell Daley and Victor Hugo Daley. Colette hurried home to research if they were related and sure enough, Daisy was a grandchild to Colette’s great-uncle John.
Colette was amazed. “I would not have found her if we wouldn’t have done this,” she said, “because she was born [and died] in between censuses.”
But the miracles didn’t stop there!
Colette went home and did more research on that side of the family and found out that she had even more relatives than she knew about buried in her area. As she discovered more grandkids of her great-uncle John, she looked up where they were buried and found that one of them was on BillionGraves.
“I thought ‘Oh my gosh, someone took their picture!'” Colette recounted, “And I looked and it was me! I took the picture last year when I first got that app and I had no idea that I was taking a picture of one of my family members. It took me taking a picture in another cemetery (of Daisy Bell) to go and continue to search… It [was] just so, so amazing, so fantastic!”
Not only was she able to find her own relatives through the pictures she took, but she also helped a friend find his relatives too. As she was helping him find out more information about his grandparents, she suggested they look on BillionGraves to see what they could find. When they did, they found out that his grandparents were buried nearby AND that her husband had taken that picture.
“It was just a little miracle to think that about 7 months before we had taken pictures in a cemetery and it turned out to be the grandparents of a friend of ours.” She said. “I thought ‘how coincidental.’ If you want miracles, go take pictures for BillionGraves! Download the app so you can have miracles in your own life.”
Her advice to anyone is to “Always keep BillionGraves in mind” when you’re traveling anywhere. “Make time on family vacations or on a Saturday to take a few pictures. Make time to stop and take your kids—my kids love it! If we don’t stop and take pictures of these cemeteries, we don’t know how much longer some of these headstones will last…”
“Just do it—even if it’s only a few headstones.” She said. “You never know what impact it will have on someone’s life.”
“I searched Joshua’s Dad’s name on Ancestry.com and found 3 documents that were for sure for him. I was able to find his social security number, and found that it was issued in Michigan in 1980. And through Facebook I’m pretty sure I was able to find his Uncle (Dad’s Brother) in Houston, Texas along with a phone number he had posted on one of his photos. So I’m praying that this story has a very happy outcome and Josh is reunited with his Dad’s side of the family.”
Sure enough, a few days later I received an email from Josh saying that with the help of the blog post, Christie, and a few other people who reached out to him, he had been able to locate his family members on his father’s side. He is so grateful for everyone who helped in his search.
THANK YOU BillionGravers for reaching out and helping Josh find his family. You are truly amazing people.
Josh never knew his father; in fact, he was told that his father was murdered. And that’s about all he knew until a few weeks ago.
Actually, he’s only been able to piece together just a few bits of information throughout the years. No one on Josh’s mother’s side of the family would ever talk about his father, and he never knew any of his father’s family because of it.
Josh was born in Michigan, so he knew his parents were together there for at least some amount of time. His mother did say that his father was a “migrant worker” and that meant his father and family moved around a lot. He was told his father worked on farms and other places in Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, and even helped moved the Texas pipeline at one point.
When he was only 8 years old, his mom told Josh that his dad had been murdered. What the circumstances were of that murder, his mother wouldn’t say.
“I don’t even know if that was true,” Josh admitted, “because of the fact that she always tries to hide information from me about my father’s family and about him. She didn’t like telling me that.”
Josh wasn’t sure what to think until a few years later (at age 16) when he was spending time with his grandmother. She was drunk and accidentally let it slip that his father had, in fact, passed away. This wasn’t the first time Josh heard this, but somehow this time was different. He was older this time and was able to fully grasp what that meant: he would never know his father.
Shortly after that, Josh moved out and has lived on his own all around the United States (and even in Mexico for a little while) until two months ago when he got married and moved to South Dakota. He has two stepsons with his first child—a baby girl—on the way.
In fact, he was about ready to just give up. But then one day, “for some reason I told myself to try looking again” Josh said. So he Googled his father’s name and one image taken during Connor’s Eagle project popped up. The name and dates matched what Josh was looking for. He had found his father!
“It meant the world to me when I saw the headstone and realized that it was my dad.” Josh said. “I’m not one to cry, [but] my eyes watered up knowing it was something that I thought I’d never find. It just touched my heart and I would like to thank [Connor], who made it possible.”
When Connor found out what his Eagle project had done for Josh, he said “Wow, maybe I was meant to do that cemetery.” His original plan was to photograph a cemetery that was closer to where he lived, but it fell through so he chose Calvary Hills.
Perhaps it was meant to be.
Now, thanks to Connor, Josh has a starting point in finding his lost father’s family. He plans to take a trip to Texas as soon as he can. He wants to find out anything he can about his father’s life and see if he can find any living relatives.
“I want them to know they have family too!” Josh says. “Whether it’s a great-niece, or a grandkid, they have them. We’re out here!”
Josh will continue his search for his paternal family, but would love any help he can get. When Josh contacted the funeral director in Texas, she was unable to give Josh any help because it’s been so long since his father’s death. So if you are related or know of anyone who could be related to Bret Alan VanDreumel, please comment below or contact Josh at email@example.com.
You just never know how powerful a picture can be or what it might mean for someone. For Josh, it means that he can start getting to know the father he never had.
UPDATE: To find out if Josh found his family, read the rest of the story.
We’ve heard from a few people who feel our charging $1.99 for the app is wrong in principle. From most of you, we hear that yes, it’s only $1.99, but the principle of charging any money when you, our users, are volunteering to provide content is unreasonable. Well, know that we’ve gone through that same argument ourselves.
Before we released the app, we went back and forth on the idea of charging for the app. You’ve already hit on the reasons we had for making the app free. But our rationale for setting a price on it may not be what you’d expect. We’re concerned about ensuring you get the best content as fast as possible. In developing other apps before BillionGraves, we’ve learned that free apps get downloaded by the casual passerby—and often don’t end up being used, or end up being used improperly. With most apps, that isn’t much of an issue. But BillionGraves is a camera app, and the content gets uploaded to a site with a very specific purpose. To the casual passerby, who does not necessarily understand or have a particular passion for finding and preserving the names of the dead, it may seem fun to take pictures of a dog, the front lawn, a car, a dresser—the possibilities for inappropriate photos are endless. As you may have seen already, sometimes these types of photos end up coming to BillionGraves because of an honest mistake made by someone who is interested. Cemeteries, which require individual approval to ensure accuracy, can be added incorrectly. All this faulty input has to be managed, and to conserve resources and put them to better use, we need to mitigate the amount of faulty input. The more faulty input we get, the longer it takes to make good photos and cemeteries available, and the longer it takes to make the improvements and additions you’ve requested.
So that’s the problem we’re facing. Charging $1.99 was the solution we settled on. Our logic was that $2 is not enough to deter someone who is interested in the project (hopefully). It would probably cost you more to get a bottle of water at 7-11 to take with you to the cemetery than it would to buy the app. But $2 is enough to make casual passersby think twice before downloading. If they then chose to download, it would most likely be with a more honest intention to satisfy their curiosity by using the app the way it was meant to be used.
With the feedback we’ve gotten, it’s apparent that you’d like us to find another solution as well. The amount of the cost isn’t the issue: it’s the principle and we understand that. We’ve been brainstorming all day, trying to figure out a way for someone to prove honest interest and be rewarded with a way to download the app for free. But it’s difficult to find a solution that will work for both the iPhone and the Android. The capabilities and restrictions for the two stores are different. Nevertheless, we’ve settled on an option we’ll try, and we hope you’ll try it with us.
If you register on the BillionGraves.com website and send us an email through the “Contact Us” page using your registration email address, we’ll buy you the iPhone version of the app and give it to you. Then we have the guarantee that you’re at least somewhat interested and you get the app for free.
We’ll incur some costs in the process, but that’s okay right now. The trouble is, Android distributors don’t have quite the same options for gifting apps, so we’ll need to adapt the solution when the Android app comes out. We’ll try this method for the next two weeks, until June 17, at which point I’ll report back on how things are going and if we’ve found a good, more permanent solution. We’re actively looking to find a way to provide both the BillionGraves content and the means for gathering it for free while still maintaining speed and quality. For now, try this solution with us.