Death is a part of life – something we don’t want to experience, but which we know is inevitable.
But in this time of COVID, the passing of a friend or loved one can be especially wrenching. Friends or family members may pass away in another part of the country and the coronavirus restrictions may make it difficult or impossible to attend a service. But we still seek closure.
Many people also seek a connection with their roots, family who came long before them.
One way we can provide a valuable service to our fellow man is to provide a link to someone’s past or the passing of a far-away loved one through gravestone photos. You don’t have to be a professional photographer nor do you need fancy equipment to do this. A cell phone camera will work just fine.
With photography, we capture the beauty of our surroundings. Often, that beauty is a memory of happy times. But what of those who can no longer experience those moments? People in search of their heritage often want photos of the markers of loved ones who have passed away. They may not have the means to obtain those photos themselves, but we can help.
How I Became Interested
I learned about this genre of photography by requesting a photo for myself. After my great-grandfather’s service in the Union Army in the Civil War, he moved to a small community in northeastern Nebraska. He farmed there until he died in 1908. I wanted a photo of his gravestone for my genealogy collection.
The area is remote from any major airline hub and it would take a significant time commitment for me to travel there simply to get a photo of his gravestone. At the time, I didn’t know about resources such as those listed in the next section, so I placed a call to the county clerk. He recommended a local photographer and gave me an email address. Within a few days, I had a photo of the gravestones of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother in hand via email.
Who is Searching?
How can we know if someone would like a photo of a relative’s gravesite? There are two primary sources – Find-A-Grave and Billion Graves. Anyone can register with these sites to receive information for photo requests in your area. As part of the sign-up process, you indicate general areas or even specific cemeteries where you are able to visit for photography.
Both sites list biographical information of a deceased person, usually originally posted by a relative or friend. If that person’s burial or interment site is far away, the poster or some other relative may place a request for a photograph through the site.
If you are registered on the site and the photo request is in your designated area, you receive an email with the request details.
How Much Time Commitment is There?
In short, there is no outward commitment. You are not obligated to accept any request. In many areas of the country, especially around larger cities, there may be several people who have registered to take these photos. If you don’t, or can’t, accept the request, someone else probably will.
Once you receive the request notification and decide to accept it, you typically have seven days to complete the request. If you are unable to get a photo in that time, the request then opens for others to claim.
I find that the actual photo shoot itself takes only a few minutes. The photo need not be a photographic masterpiece. A cell phone snapshot with a bit of editing for clarity is often more than enough. However, there is usually some prep time involved to locate the actual gravesite.
Some Cemeteries are Huge – How Do I Find the Gravestone?
This is the major part of the preparation. Virtually all large cemeteries have an office where they keep records of burial locations. I just stop at the office and inquire, giving the deceased’s name and – usually – date of death.
In most instances, I have found cemetery office personnel to be extremely helpful. I have even had them leave the office to personally guide me to the site.
Even smaller cemeteries may have a part-time sexton who can provide gravesite location information.
In some cases, though, all you can do is walk the cemetery, up one row and down another until you find the gravestone you are seeking. I consider that a form of welcome exercise.
Once you locate the gravesite and take a photo or two, it is merely a matter of uploading the photo (after any edits you wish to make for clarity) to the location specified in the original request.
What If I Can’t Find a Gravestone?
The longer in the past that the subject died, the more difficult it can become to locate a gravesite. Especially in the eastern United States, small family cemeteries referenced in the online posting may no longer exist.
I once came across a large memorial stone listing names of several members of a family. The members were originally buried in a family cemetery some distance away but that cemetery location was lost to development. That marker in another cemetery was the only evidence of members of that family.
Sometimes, even cemetery records are wrong. In any case where the gravesite cannot be located, it is sufficient to make a notation on the referral request of the fact that the site could not be located. I find it helpful to the requestor to also include a brief description of whatever efforts I undertook to locate the gravestone.
Do I Get Paid for my Time?
No, this is a volunteer endeavor. I consider this activity to be a service that I provide to help others learn more about their family and themselves. Responses to requests through Find-A-Grave or Billion Graves do not provide for any type of payment option.
In my own case, I offered to pay the photographer who sent me photos of my great-grandparents’ gravesites. He promptly informed me that no payment was necessary and that he was glad to help. In a couple of instances where people have offered to pay me, I have given the same response.
Certainly, if you are a busy professional photographer, this might not be for you. But as a senior citizen myself who enjoys photography – and a genealogical student – I see this as a community contribution. No, I do not make any money doing it, but each photo I submit is credited to me on the listing site.
I enjoy this activity enough that I usually look for any other requests for the same cemetery which have not been fulfilled. Particularly in the case of smaller cemeteries, I find that with a couple of hours of effort, I might be able to provide photos for several interested families, beyond the person originally making the request.
It’s a good feeling.