I think I might be a grave robber. It was an accident. I promise. In my last post, I sang the praises of Find a Grave, a really cool website created in 1995 by a guy named Jim Tipton as a way to catalog and share his love of celebrity gravesites. Over the last 20 years, the site has grown from one man’s hobby to a humongous website/database of over 121 million burial and internment records from cemeteries around the world. The site was so popular and so useful, it piqued the interest of ancestry.com, and the behemoth genealogy giant acquired it in 2013. On Find a Grave, it’s possible to locate the final resting places of almost anyone, regardless of fame or fortune.
And it only continues to grow.
For as long as I can remember, my mom and I have visited graveyards all over the place. I have hundreds of sheets of negatives filled with graveyard pictures from everywhere. Somewhere, I have a picture of myself on top of my mom’s car with an 8×10 view camera, shooting a cemetery in south east Texas around 1994. It’s a cool shot. I should find it. ANYHOW….
The first time I used Find a Grave was about five or six years ago when I resumed my genealogy research. Back in 1992 when I first started climbing my family tree, research was painfully slow. The information superhighway was still more like a dirt road, and most historical information was still on microfilm, microfiche, and in books. Even though my college studies already had me in different libraries and archives, there just weren’t enough hours in a day to do my own thing. But after Y2K came and went, more resources became available, and websites like Ancestry and MyHeritage launched. I picked my research up, logged online, and discovered dozens of new names and dates and branches, all of which I stored in my tree on MyHeritage.com (and I scribbled in spiral notebooks).
In 2008, my computer crashed. While I got everything back into place, MyHeritage.com had transitioned into a paid site, and I didn’t particularly want to pay to join to retrieve my information. It had been a wonderful site before, but my young daughter had been captivated by the leaves in the ancestry.com commercials, so I had no other choice but to give the site with the floating leaf a try.
Luckily, I had an ace in the hole. During my stint on HyHeritage, I met Bill. Bill is my third cousin, and he is a research ninja. He and I collaborated, and he shared my philosophy on ancestry research: documentation, verification, and distribution. (In other words: find it, make sure it’s true, and share it!) I knew that when I was ready to resume, Bill would have my back. So, five-years later when I joined ancestry.com, Bill was there with open arms. And he’d taken the research we’d merged together in 2007/08 and had grown it to at least twice what it had been.
So I dove back in, head first. I updated everything and revisited all my old spiral notebooks. I’d go “down the rabbit hole” and not come out until I “hit a wall or hit the boat.” During my hiatus, many websites had grown by leaps and bounds. Particularly Find a Grave.
Since I live far away from any of the places where my ancestors lived, I could never explore any family cemeteries for my research. I had a record of where everyone was, and I had visited the mausoleum where most of my mom’s family is interred many times (and had a gazillion photographs—remember, I am a photographer!) but there was never any real place, other than Google Earth, where one could casually drop by for a visit, clear away the weeds, leave some flowers, and just say hi. (And, on Google Earth, you can just kinda see it. Sorta. Kinda.)
Enter Find a Grave. I was never an active member of Find a Grave until earlier this year, but I’ve been “stalker” for years. Since I knew where my immediate line on my mother’s side were buried (and I had pictures of all of their internments), I never thought to seek them out on the site. As a rule, I am not much of a joiner or contributor. I am usually more of a sojourner. A casual observer. But, I decided to actually join Find a Grave because I thought it might be fun to have a place to post some cemetery photos, create some memorials, and leave some flowers now and then.
For the most part, Find a Grave is a fantastic group of helpful individuals with the very best intentions. Most members are eager to share in earnest their intentions of helping families connect. Little did I know that there is a very small percentage incredibly passionate members with peculiar quirks and obsessive tendencies. And rabid territorialism.
Like I said, most members are extraordinarily wonderful people. Like my new friend, Kent. Kent has an affinity for suffragists, and had set up a memorial for my 2x great grandmother, Helen Ekin Starrett. I sponsored her memorial ($5), messaged Kent, introduced myself, and asked if he’d mind transferring ownership of her memorial to me. He was thrilled to do so—and even transferred my great grandfather’s memorial as well—I didn’t know where he was buried until then, so I was incredibly grateful! I eagerly sponsored his memorial as well ($5). When I updated Helen’s bio, he wrote and told me how much he loved it, and how he couldn’t wait to see updates for her husband and children. It felt wonderful to do something nice for my 2x great grandparents—people I’d never met, but who were such a huge part of who I am.
I did a search for my dad’s parents, Pauline and Gerhard Dirkes, found them in Long Island, New York, and sponsored their memorials too. Before I had a chance to ask for a transfer of ownership, their memorial managers each transferred them to me. I quickly added the photos I had of them, and felt a little glimmer of happiness in knowing that I had been able to do something small for another pair of ancestors.
(n.b. Find a Grave is free. You do not have to pay to join or to add or manage memorials. However, the $5 sponsorship removes all advertising from the sponsored person’s page and adds a little heart by their name. I kinda like that. That’s why I spring for the $5 when I can!)
Sadly, this weekend, I saw the dark side of the website. My previous experiences had been so fantastic, I was eager to do the same with other direct relations. Since I had my credit card in my hand, I went ahead and sponsored my maternal grandparents and “Hot Great Grandpa” and Garma (my great grandmother who lived with my mom and my aunt after their mother died). Having spent so much time with William in the series I had written here on the blog, it just felt right. And, as I wrote about last week, I really felt a need to sponsor my grandmothers.
When I first joined Find a Grave about five months ago, I met the distant cousin who had created many of my relatives’ memorial pages. I asked her for any information she may have— photographs, letters, etc.—the stuff all of us genealogy researchers ask for every day on our journeys. She happily sent me photographs, letters, bible pages, and a few other documents (directories of living relatives and family tree files that I didn’t need for my research, but filed away in my ancestry files for possible later use). Most of my mom’s family had memorials set up already, but there were no little hearts by my grandparents or “H.G.G.” and Garma. “Yay!” I thought, “I get to put little hearts by their names!” So I clicked through to sponsor the four of them and sent this distant cousin a quick email asking her if she’d mind transferring the memorials to me so I could take care of my grandparents for awhile. (Let me clarify. I sponsored my grandparents first. Then my internet went down and several hours later, I finished with the other two sponsorships.)
That’s when the shit hit the fan.
Had I realized that there was a secret subculture within Find a Grave, I don’t think I would’ve bothered. This little tidbit of information would’ve spared me hours of frustration, some tears, a few anxiety attacks, and a couple doses of xanax.
Within the volunteer ranks of Find a Grave is an informal group of loyal members I now know as “collectors.” (I learned this from some friends on a genealogy blogging facebook page I frequent.) These “collectors” set up and manage multiple memorials—sometimes hundreds—even thousands of them, and find some sort of status symbol in the number of memorials created and/or managed. There are others who collect and manage specific types of memorials. Sometimes it’s by occupation or location. Other times, it’s by family. In some ways, they are kind of like internet trolls. I read a fantastic post on this by a fellow WordPress blogger titled “Thoughts on Find-A-Grave.” She says everything I want to say!
The owner/manager of my grandparents’ and great grandparents’ memorials was a family researcher and Find a Grave memorial collector, and she was angry. No. She wasn’t angry. She was flat out pissed off. She did NOT like that I had sponsored four memorials that she had created (though not paid to sponsor) and she refused a transfer. Yes, she was related, but not directly. The answer to my request for transfer was not only an emphatic NO, but it was the launching point for a litany of insults in which she called me every name in the book. She accused me of “stealing” her research, lying about I don’t know what, telling me that I was an entitled, disrespectful young jerk, a bitch, and so on and so forth.
Just for requesting a transfer of ownership of my grandparents’ memorials. And my great grandparents’ memorials. (Just to clarify, the owner’s relationship to my great grandfather is that he was her great uncle. And my grandpa was her first cousin once removed.) Yet, she was rip roaring mad at me for having the nerve to request ownership transfer. Although she had not paid to sponsor their memorials, I had committed some sort of Find a Grave faux pas by doing so without obtaining her permission first, and my punishment would be a barrage of insulting emails, threats, tattling to my mother and my aunt, and the warning that I was being instructed to never ever publish anything that she had ever sent me “or else!” (I am confused as to what this means. Am I not allowed to do any family research again? Am I not allowed to research any of the dead common ancestors she typed into a file she forwarded me that I never opened? Hmmmm…..)
Stunned, I took to facebook to figure out what I’d done. I was clueless. Apparently, “ownership” (aka “management”) of a memorial is different from “sponsorship.” When a memorial is created (for free), the creator is the owner. The manager. Until they choose to relinquish this title to another member or until the end of time, whichever comes first. Ownership/management of a memorial entitles the person to make changes and edits and approve content, regardless of who the owner is. And, even though someone may sponsor a memorial, said person must still submit any changes and/or edits that need to be made to the owner/manager, and if they feel like it, then they have to make the changes/edits. Not the sponsor.
Sponsorship, on the other hand, is a one-time $5 donation to the website that removes all advertising on the sponsored person’s memorial page. And puts a little heart next to their name. And lists your name as the sponsor. That’s it. The sponsor doesn’t “buy” the memorial from the creator/manager. Nor do they gain the ability to make changes. It does allow for more than the standard five photographs to be added to a memorial page, but that’s it. Basically, you pay five bucks so that the owner/manager can add more pictures and anyone who visits doesn’t have to look at any ads.
I didn’t understand. In my vulnerable state from Scary, Sobering, Sucky Numbers, I got caught up in an emotional moment and reached out to my grandparents and great grandparents in what I thought was a sweet, symbolic gesture. I thought I’d be able to add the cute little heart to their pages and add a wonderful memorial bio as I had done with my 2x great grandmother and duplicate the experience I’d had with Kent. Silly me. Instead, my gesture of reaching out to my grandma and grandpa and Garma and HGG made me a bitch. A young, entitled jerk. A disrespectful cousin who steals other people’s research and thinks I’m the only member of the family.
I wish I had a happy ending to this, but I don’t. Basically, I spent and entire day defending myself from a madwoman who spent her day screaming at me through her computer keyboard, accusing me of bullying an old, disabled lady. (Oh, and I am a big ol’ meanie because I didn’t use my crystal ball to see that she has a plethora of physical ailments, so I was being mean by even asking her to SHARE information in the first place. Geez. I am such an asshole.) She sent an email to my mother and my aunt, trying very hard to sound like a victim, unaware that they had been copied on every email that had transpired from the moment she responded with “I am so damned mad!”
During this woman’s tantrum, she transferred 11 memorials to me. Eleven. Four of them were the ones I actually wanted. Four of them are my second cousin’s (who also happens to be like a big brother to me as well as my daughter’s Godfather) parents and grandparents. And three others. Sigh….. But, in the few days since this happened, several kind and supportive Find a Grave members have posted messages to me on Facebook and sent me personal messages apologizing for the behavior of a crazy member they haven’t met, and encouraging me to ignore her. Those people make up for her crappy behavior.
And, today, I received an email from Find a Grave support that they have taken care of this incident and assured me that it will not happen again with this member. I simply forwarded the offensive email thread to them, they reviewed it, and determined that my requests were not out of line. Though I am happy that I am able to care for these memorials, I am so very saddened that it had to happen this way. It didn’t have to.
I’m going to end this post with this: Every family has oddballs and nutcases. Every family has someone who is impossible to deal with, no matter how hard you try, no matter what you say, no matter how nice you try to be. Every family has someone who will flip their lid for no apparent reason. Every family has someone who will share some information, but not all information. Every family has someone who thinks everything is a contest. Every family has someone who thinks their research is enough, and no one else needs to do any more. Every family has someone who is going to make your genealogy/ancestry research categorically UNfun from time to time.
But this is my advice. Keep going. Share. Share everything. Post your family photos. Set up Find a Grave and BillionGraves memorials. Set up open family trees on ancestry.com and myheritage.com. Do it anyway. Because in the end, the information is just going to get harder and harder to obtain. Someday, the family member who has been in charge of the research and family archives will die, and their “stuff” may—or may NOT—be special to the next generation. If that next generation decides to put those boxes on the curb for the garbage man—that’s it. It’s gone. Forever. But if you scan it and share it and post it and label it correctly, then it will live on. Forever. And it won’t matter who found it or who owned it or who had it first. What will matter is that it was preserved, and it lasts. Forever.
As for the Find a Grave collectors, well, I just don’t get it. If a grandchild or a great grandchild or a sibling wants to care for a memorial, let them. It’s not a contest. It’s not about you. Sometimes, that memorial page may be that person’s only link to the deceased, and you should feel pride and happiness and joy in the knowledge that you helped someone else make that connection. The connection should be the real collection.
© Julie Dirkes Phelps
Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, and Storyteller.
© Copyright 2015.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, reposting, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission. Be cool, don’t plagiarize. If you want to use something, just ask.