At the November meeting of the Western Massachusetts Genealogical Society (WMGS), we listened to a presentation titled, “CSI Gravestones: Causes of Death.” Although that may sound a bit on the morbid side, one of the details that most genealogists look for is the cause of death. The intriguing nature of this presentation was the highlighting of the propensities of our ancestors to “broadcast” those causes through the epitaphs carved in stone on grave markers all over New England. It’s not seen very much these days, if at all.
The most interesting, or rather, the most tragic gravestone I’ve ever photographed is the memorial to Mr. Nathaniel Parks who was 19 years old on the 19th of March 1794 when he was shot to death by Mr. Luther Frink. Considering the length of time between the shooting and the burial, it’s safe to assume that Mr. Frink admitted the cause of young Nathaniel’s demise. See his memorial at Find-A-Grave here.
What’s the BIG project I was talking about? Let’s get back to the WMGS meeting. Al and Betsy McKee of Longmeadow, Massachusetts have been photographing gravestones for over 20 years. They’ve traveled up and down the Connecticut River Valley from northern Massachusetts down into southern Connecticut. They have a little over 20,000 images in their collection. They sorted out about 50 or so for us that showed causes of death: fevers, war, old age among many other causes including illnesses that we are no longer confronted with.
Since I’ve been involved with Find-A-Grave for over 15 years, it occurred to me that the McKee’s had probably uploaded many of their images to that site. At the conclusion of the presentation, I asked them about that. Well, they just never got involved with uploading to Find-A-Grave. So I proposed a collaborative project between them and WMGS. And they’re all for it. My idea was to open an account so that the memorials that get posted would give credit to them for the photographs.
Find-A-Grave is one of the websites that researchers use on a fairly regular basis. Creating an
account is totally free and anyone can upload any memorial as long as the memorial has not already been posted. Incredibly, there are over 140 million memorials for “regular people” all the way up to presidents and movie stars. It’s a good research tool in that using the site to search for an ancestor can turn up some surprising results. That’s the upside. The downside is that realistically, anyone can upload anything. So you may find someone who is a target of your research, but the data gleaned from such a memorial must be verified before we take it as fact. Either way, it’s just another breadcrumb in the relentless search for our ancestors.
Why put up memorials? There are many reasons. First, it is a memorial and it does just that, memorialize a family member, friend or anyone who you are familiar with who you feel deserves to be remembered in such a manner. Many of us simply like to provide the information to researchers from around the country and actually from around the world. The photo isn’t necessary, it’s more of a bonus. I’ve had email over the years from people who appreciate the fact that they can “visit” friends and family when there is no opportunity to visit the actual cemetery. One elderly woman saw her sister in one of the local cemeteries and, according to her daughter, teared up. The cemetery is here in Massachusetts and she currently lives with her daughter and son-in-law in California with no hope of making a trip back here.
So here’s the point of this post. If you’re familiar with Find-A-Grave or even if you’re new to it and would like to take part in this project, just get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. As we put together the details, I’m sure we can easily find a way to allow anyone from anywhere to pitch in.