Missionaries Taking Photos of Gravestones
Missionaries taking photos of gravestones? Yes, it’s true. Missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from several missions across the United States are helping to document cemeteries with the BillionGraves app during their weekly service hours.
If 2020 was like any other year, the missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be spending most of their time sharing messages of faith. And for up to ten hours a week, they may also have been serving at food banks, blood drives, or helping to meet other community needs.
But 2020’s coronavirus pandemic, along with its recommendations for social distancing, has spurred some missions to find new ways to serve. Consequently, many missionaries are taking photos of gravestones to preserve cemetery data and make it available for online genealogical research. Then, even if an ancestor’s gravestone is damaged or worn by time, the invaluable information recorded at their final resting place will still be available.
As photos are taken with the BillionGraves app, each gravestone is automatically tagged with GPS coordinates. The data is transcribed by other volunteers, plotted on a cemetery map, and made readily available at BillionGraves.com for families around the globe to easily find their ancestor’s gravestone at the cemetery. It also allows researchers to see who else might be buried nearby so they can find more relatives and expand family trees for generations to come.
Taking photos of gravestones is a service opportunity that can work for missionaries whether they are located in large cities, small towns, or rural areas.
Some missionaries are documenting headstones in huge cemeteries, taking pictures row-by-row. Others are contacting families that have tiny burial plots in their backyards or on their farmland to offer to photograph their gravestones. Either way, it has opened doors for missionaries to have natural conversations about the importance of families and eternal life with those they meet.
North Dakota Bismarck Mission
Missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are usually in their late teens or early twenties. They typically leave their homes to serve full-time in their assigned areas – young men for two years and young women for 18 months.
One mission that has experienced great success with missionaries taking photos of gravestones is the North Dakota Bismarck mission. In less than twelve weeks, the missionaries have documented over 150,000 headstones, completing more than 121 cemeteries.
The North Dakota Bismarck mission covers parts of five states. All of the large cemeteries within the mission have now been completely photographed and they are busily working to finish the remaining 150-175 small cemeteries.
The North Dakota Bismarck mission president, Scott Howell, is a university administrator on leave from Brigham Young University. Interestingly, he is also a former sexton of a small cemetery and an amateur genealogist.
President Howell said, “This activity during COVID-19 has been a lifesaver to so many of our missionaries. It has not only helped them get some of their ‘outside time’, as encouraged by the Missionary Department, but it has also given them meaning to their time outside their apartments.
“As they took the pictures they enjoyed exercise, fresh air, and some introspection about the meaning of life, the plan of happiness—especially the doctrine of the resurrection—while reflecting on their own mortality.
President Howell said he knew the missionaries were in good company as they spent time in the cemeteries since one of the former presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Thomas S. Monson, enjoyed walking in cemeteries. Monson said, “. . . wherever I travel, I try to pay a visit to the town cemetery. It is a time of contemplation, of reflection on the meaning of life and the inevitability of death.” (“He is Risen“, Monson, Liahona, 2003.)
Howell continued, “For our missionaries, their service was a spiritual experience as earth met heaven while serving on these sacred burial grounds.”
Newspaper Articles about Missionaries at the Cemetery
After missionaries in the North Dakota Bismarck Mission document a cemetery they provide their local newspaper with pictures of themselves taking photos at the cemetery and some information about their service. Newspapers have been quick to publish this information.
President Howell said, “One of the unexpected developments from this activity was how many of the local newspapers accepted articles and pictures we submitted to them of our missionaries’ service within the community.”
Each article submitted to the newspapers has included a quote from the mission president, a quote from the local missionaries, and a photo of the missionaries taking gravestone photos. Howell said, “So far, every paper to which we submitted an article, has been published – nine newspapers so far and counting.” The missionaries were also spotlighted on a Bismarck TV news broadcast.
Some of the newspaper articles conclude with an offer to help, saying, “If readers are aware of any small or private cemeteries in the area that they would like photographed, they can contact the missionaries at __ (phone #) __. Then they fill in the blank with the missionary’s local phone number.
As a result, many people have called missionaries to ask them to document their family gravestones. This has been especially popular with farmers who have small family burial plots on their land. As the missionaries take photos of their gravestones, it often leads to conversations about the family’s ancestors – and lots of goodwill and gratitude.
President Howell said, “This scripture from Isaiah took on new meaning to me as a result of these publications: ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him . . . that publisheth peace; . . . that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth . . .’ (Mosiah 12:21).
“This has been a wonderful experience for our missionaries.” Howell continued, “It not only continues to provide them with service opportunities, but it also increases public awareness of them and their service within the communities they serve.”
Click HERE and HERE and HERE to see a few examples of aerial view cemetery maps with GPS-linked gravestone photos taken by missionaries serving in North Dakota. (Enlarge the maps to see individual gravestone markers.)
Quotes from Missionaries Taking Gravestone Photos
Taking photos of gravestones blesses not only families who are seeking their ancestors, but it also blesses the missionaries taking the photos. Below are quotes from some of them.
“I love being able to do this because as people become more connected with those who have gone before them, they can become more connected with who they are.”
“Being able to use the BillionGraves app as a missionary has been such an amazing experience. One of the best experiences has been being able to find those who were lost. As we take photographs of the headstones, we are able to collect birth and death dates for those who may not have had them published previously. As we gather this information, families are able to connect with their ancestors. I love being able to do this because as people become more connected with those who have gone before them, they can become more connected with who they are.” -Sister Kenzie Christensen
“There was an overwhelming sense of peace each time I read a new name.”
“Embarking in Billion Graves as a project has been the biggest blessing as I have served my mission for the Church of Jesus Christ. My companion and I, Sister Sonnenburg, set out to be in the cemetery nearest us at least twice a week. Being in the cemetery brought such a comforting feeling to this chaotic world.
“As we spent time taking pictures of the headstones, I read each name, birth date, and death date. There was always an overwhelming sense of peace each time I read a new name. Knowing that every person resting there now has their names taken to assist with family history records is something that brings me so much joy.
“Not only will descendants be able to find their ancestors’ records easier, but the legacies of their family members will live on. Oh, how grateful I am to use BillionGraves to connect more of God’s children with each other.” -Sister Allison Van Hoff
“I noticed a change in my attitude . . . “
“Being able to participate in taking pictures of graves has been such a special opportunity. When I first heard that we would be going to the cemeteries, I was not sure if it would be a waste of time or something that would actually make a difference.
“However, as I continually made the effort to visit the cemetery and photograph graves, I noticed both a change in my attitude and my feelings about the value of the work I was doing. I came to realize that every picture I took, no matter how small it seemed, could help an individual find their ancestor.
“Family history is a sacred opportunity to find ancestors and join them together with their families once again in knowledge and in spirit. I am grateful for the time that I have been able to spend serving these people, even though they have long since passed on, and I look forward to devoting more time to it.” -Sister Laura Baird
“I imagine those who have passed on being just as excited as those family members who are still alive today.”
“When we first started taking pictures of gravestones I thought ‘Why are we here? This isn’t as thrilling as I had hoped.’ But then I began to realize that I was helping these people by putting their information online, allowing their names to be further taken and used for their family’s genealogy work. I imagine those who have passed on being just as excited as those family members who are still alive today. Serving others in this way has been a great blessing to me!” -Elder Hunter Stolworthy
“I have gained a great love for service while working on this project.”
“I am a reassigned missionary, first assigned to the Philippines. I came to the North Dakota Bismarck mission in early May and immediately jumped into this mission-wide BillionGraves service project. We have taken photographs at local cemeteries in my area multiple times a week and have spent many hours on it.
“I have gained a great love for service while working on this project, and am very grateful for the opportunity to participate in it. That being said, I know that the relatives to those headstones in the photographs are being immensely blessed from it as well. While working on the project, I have had lots of time to reflect and think about my parents and grandparents that I have had relationships with. I am thrilled that I am able to help others remember their ancestors as well.” -Elder Sam Nielson
Did you have any funny moments while taking photos of gravestones?
- “We had a race to see who could do more.”
- “It was funny when we found our own names on a headstone.”
- “We just laughed at one of the names: Deven Pumpkin Seed.”
- “My companion kneeled on a bunch of cacti when he was trying to take a picture.”
- “Well, a snake crawled across my shoe. I kicked and jumped away with a loud yell of surprise, but I can now say I’ve kicked a snake.”
- “I took an ole squat down to take a pic and I fell backward.”
- “One time we went to take pictures, a Tom turkey kept creeping in because we were on his turf.”
How did you feel as you took photos of headstones for this family history project?
- “Peaceful, happy, and like I was doing something important.”
- “Good, just a little sweaty.”
- “It made me super happy to have an opportunity to get outside and to serve the community.”
- “I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself.”
- “It was calming and I felt connected to the other side.”
- “I felt really good. Being outside was great and I loved knowing I was helping people on both sides of the veil.”
How do you think this will help the community and family history researchers now and in the future?
- “These photos will help preserve history. Some of those headstones are decaying to the point that you won’t be able to read them soon.”
- “The people of the Dakotas won’t have to go traveling around to find their ancestors, it’s just a click away!”
- “If anyone has ancestors within these mission boundaries, they will 100% be able to find them and will know where they are buried so they can visit the headstone.”
- “We believe that we can live with our families forever. By connecting living people to their deceased ancestors, they can grow closer to their loved ones, as well as to their Maker.”
“It has given me a greater reverence for life and a resolve to make the most of what I will do with mine.”
“I’ve gained a greater appreciation for genealogy and the lives of the many people who have lived here in the Dakotas. As I have photographed the birth and death dates on headstones, I’ve taken time to consider the space between the two dates – the lives lived by the people we are trying to catalog. It has given me a greater reverence for life and a resolve to make the most of what I will do with mine.” – Elder Harrison Dansie
We wish you blessings as you spend time at the cemetery!
Cathy Wallace and the BillionGraves Team
P.S. If you would like to take gravestone photos, click HERE to get started. You are welcome to do this at your own convenience, no permission from us is needed.
If you still have questions or would like help after you have clicked on the link above, please email us at Volunteer@BillionGraves.com. In connection with this blog post, we would be especially happy to hear from missionaries or mission presidents interested in this service opportunity. We’ll be glad to help you figure out how to get started!