Finding graves for strangers

I find cemeteries beautiful, sometimes. I like eerie and haunting places, and also well-maintained parks, and cemeteries can be both. I had come across the website Find-A-Grave before, mostly when searching online for a person’s name, and I had seen that some of them have photos. There’s a feature “request a photo of this grave.” I have to confess, I never really thought about who took the photos and why, nor about why people would request photos of a far-off grave. Then, a friend of mine mentioned that she has started trying to fulfill some of these requests. She says it’s a nice way to go for a walk with her camera, and to help people get pictures of family members’ graves. This is when I realized that I was overlooking something that’s important to people by not giving Find-A-Grave more thought. The users are probably a mix of amateur genealogists, maybe some adoptees looking for lost family, as well as historians and other researchers.

I live very close to a good-sized Catholic cemetery. I’ve walked by it hundreds of times. I went for a walk inside the cemetery once, in the early morning, because it’s a place that’s green and quiet. Earlier this week, I looked it up on Find-A-Grave, and found that there are over 3,000 memorials in this cemetery in their database, 66% of which have been photographed. There were 23 outstanding photo requests, the oldest one made four years ago and the most recent one three days ago. I wonder how often people attempt to fulfill these requests, and whether any of the yet-to-be-found graves are miscataloged, not in this cemetery at all. The people’s death dates ranged from the 1890s to the 2000s. I set out with my phone, trusting its camera, to see what I could find.

It took a little while to get into a rhythm of searching. Where possible, Find-A-Grave has specific locations within a cemetery, but this wasn’t true for any of the ones I was looking for. I set the list to view alphabetically, and tried to walk methodically through the rows of graves, scrolling through the list as I went until I practically had it memorized. The tricky part was that only part of this graveyard is laid out on something that could be recognized as a grid. I tried to hug the edge and start with the last row, but the last row kept changing. Finally, I started in the far corner, where there is a series of rows that move almost diagonally outward, and paced back and forth, looking at one side of a row at a time because some of them needed fairly close inspection.

I only spent about 30 minutes my first time out, and I don’t think I found anything. There was one headstone with no first names, but one of the last names I was looking for. I took a picture just in case, but I haven’t uploaded it yet. I’ll wait until I’ve covered more ground. Part of me thinks I’d like to keep going back until I’ve walked every row. I like this cemetery, which has so many Irish names and reminds me that I’m part of the Irish diaspora population that I don’t often feel strongly connected to.

I wasn’t raised with any strong traditions surrounding death and burial. Other people’s traditions sometimes fascinate me, and sometimes I just find them baffling. I sometimes work with human remains (typically skeletons) or depictions of human remains in my job in a medical museum, so I’ve read a lot on the ethical considerations around collecting and displaying the dead. The museum field has a troubling history in this arena, but I often don’t feel an immediate tug when I hear about, or see, exploitation of human remains; what I’ve found helpful is to look at conversations about the use of other people’s dead bodies from the perspective of consent. Plenty of people do have very strong feelings about how their own or their loved one’s bodies should be treated, some based not only in personal or religious beliefs but in religious obligations. Thinking about whether a museum, a medical school or another institution has a person’s consent in how their remains are treated makes it easy for me to see how horribly wrong it is to mistreat a dead body. Since I have read a lot about this topic lately, thinking about other people’s traditions around death has become a fascinating but stressful topic for me. Museums have (sometimes recently or currently) used human remains to justify scientific racism, to dehumanize and other disability and deformity, and as a money-maker without compensating the families of the deceased. In a way, taking a peaceful walk with the hope of connecting someone with a relative’s grave has given me a more positive way to relate to strangers’ remains, beyond thinking about how to influence such a large problem.

In the two find-a-grave walks I’ve taken so far, I haven’t found any of the 23 people I’ve been looking for. I get excited every time I find one of the last names on my list, but they haven’t yet had the right first names. My walks have been short, because I tend to go in the early evening, and as the sun begins to set, names in headstones become hard to read long before it gets dark. I would be much more excited about the whole process if I had actually found something so far. This wouldn’t make a good game. At the same time, it feels a bit like a scavenger hunt. It’s a strange combination of feelings in this activity, peaceful, hopeful, playful, reverent. I don’t know who the people making the requests for these photos really are, or what the photos, if I end up being able to take any, will mean to them. My hope is that they’ll mean something.

Image is of the end of a row of stone grave markers of various heights. Behind them are trees and a bit of sunset.