A Local Act of Conservation: Remembrance Through Digital Memorials

Cindy Davis is a retired third-grade teacher. When she began her retirement three years ago, she turned her attention more fully toward the exploration and documentation of her family genealogy. One piece of the puzzle was finding the tombstones and burial sites of her ancestors and photographing them for inclusion in her personal family tree album as well as on the website Find a Grave. Find a Grave is a website that documents gravesites, and visitors can create virtual memorials for deceased friends and family. Within Find a Grave, she found notes from people looking for photographs of ancestors’ tombstones—people too far away from the cemeteries their relatives were buried in. That’s when Davis’s attention turned toward helping other families. Through Find a Grave, she found people searching for information about deceased relatives tombstones and started taking photographs and posting them for others. Davis also serves on the Board for the Jewett City Cemetery in Jewett City, Connecticut, where several of her ancestors are buried. As she got involved on the Board, she decided to craft a project for herself; her goal was to photograph all tombstones in the cemetery and create memorials for them on the Find a Grave website. When she completed this task, she moved on to the cemeteries in her hometown, Canterbury, Connecticut.


Jewett City Cemetery, Jewett City, Connecticut. Photograph courtesy of Cindy Davis.

PY: I’m going to jump right in to the big question I have. Across your cemetery projects, how many tombstones have you photographed so far for yourself and for others? 


CD: Let’s see. I have it written down. 2,939.


PY: That’s a lot of tombstones you are helping to preserve digitally. Can you talk about how the digital part of your ancestry documentation started and how it expanded into connecting with others?


CD: I had been using Acestry.com for several years as a place to set up a digital family tree. My goal was to include as much information as I could for each member of the family. This included scanning photographs, letters, birth certificates, ship logs, death certificates, and on and on. Many of my ancestors were buried in Connecticut, and I thought it would be worth photographing the tombstones of my ancestors to include in my records. During my ancestry research, I was introduced to Find a Grave, a free website used for setting up digital memorials. It is a place where you can document memorials, add notes for those missed, add photographs of tombstones, and leave “virtual flowers.” I decided to look on this website first to see if any extended family members had already set up memorials for any of my ancestors.

While on Find a Grave, I found out about requests that could be made for people looking for help from those local to their ancestors’ burial sites. In Find a Grave, when you set up your profile, you can add that you want to take photographs for people. Find a Grave sends appeals to those in or near a requested cemetery’s ZIP Code. If you accept a request, you go on a journey to find the tombstone. I have currently responded to 310 requests for photographs on Find a Grave.


PY: That’s an incredible service you and many others provide for each other. It must make documenting your ancestry a bit less daunting.

Photograph courtesy of Cindy Davis.

Can you talk about the project you took on at Jewett City Cemetery? 


CD: Jewett City Cemetery is home to several of my ancestors. The cemetery is run by a board, and my mother is a member there. I decided to become a member as well. I wanted to be involved in helping the cemetery, and I thought perhaps digitizing the tombstones, helping to preserve them beyond physical deterioration, might be a way to help. The cemetery didn’t have their own website, and they didn’t have the resources to create and maintain one. Find a Grave was a way I thought I could document both individual tombstones and help the cemetery. I set up 742 memorial pages (and included photographs), and I added 1,272 pictures to existing memorial pages.

Just to give you an example of what I’m talking about, if you search Find a Grave for Captain Stephen Holt Barrows, an ancestor of mine, buried at the Jewett City Cemetery, you will see an example of a memorial page.

If you search Jewett City Cemeteryyou are taken to a page with the option to view all interments at the cemetery, of which there are 1,540. So, while the cemetery doesn’t have a webpage, one can view a list of all of those buried in the cemetery.


PY: Is it common for cemeteries to rely on Find a Grave and not have their own individual websites?


CD: Not many cemeteries I have researched have their own websites. Many cemeteries are run by the town or a church, and there aren’t resources to design, develop, and maintain websites.

When you type in a person’s name and death date in Google, Find a Grave typically comes up as the first hit. Entering a person onto the Find a Grave website is an easy way of documenting and preserving ancestry. There is no monetary cost; it just takes time.



Cemetery on private property, Canterbury, Connecticut. Photograph courtesy of Cindy Davis.

PY: I understand you are currently working on documenting all gravesites in Canterbury, Connecticut, where you live. How many cemeteries are there? 


CD: There are 23 total, though some of them only have a handful of gravesites. I figure there are over 4,000 gravestones in town. Canterbury was founded in 1703. During those early years, family burial plots on privately owned land were allowed. There are some cemeteries that are basically in people’s backyard! These cemeteries are open to the public. To find one cemetery, I went to the town hall to find out whose property it was on; then I went to the home owner and explained that I wanted to document the gravesites for a public website. I had to go down a rutted dirt “road” and cross a massive cornfield and there, within the confines of a stone wall, was the cemetery. There are actually ninety-seven people buried there.


PY: How do you go about doing your work? Is there a master list of burials in each cemetery housed in town halls? I’m wondering about cemetery records. Aren’t there maps of cemeteries?


CD: That’s the tricky part. Every town is different. For the Jewett City Cemetery, there is a master list of all burials, so I used this list to work on setting up digital documentation of the headstones. The physical list was particularly helpful as some early stones have either crumbled or aren’t legible. Additionally, some of those buried there aren’t marked with stones, so I set up digital memorials for them and listed the location of their burial. For those, I indicated “No headstone as per cemetery records.”

In Canterbury, there is physical documentation as well. At one point, someone went right down the rows in all the cemeteries and recorded everything on each stone prior to 1935. I have found very few cemeteries with maps. These would be helpful, but generally town cemeteries, as I mentioned, don’t have a lot of resources. The Carey Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Canterbury, does have a map that was created by a high school student as a community service project.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m doing detective work. Things aren’t always clear. Several town cemeteries seem to be lost. In Canterbury, the town office knows what street the cemeteries are on but not the exact location. Volunteers can be very instrumental. The town has acquired the services of a retired person who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers who is going to map the location of all the cemeteries in town.


PY: What would you recommend if someone wanted to take on a project like this?


CD: Check with the town hall first to see if there is any documentation or list. Also, the town Historical Society may have useful information. If you start with organized information, it will no doubt be easier. If there is a cemetery map, that could help you as well. People may have created digital memorials for people on Find a Grave, so you could look up the cemetery to see how much has been done.

For example, I’m going to tackle Carey Cemetery in the summer. If I go on Find A Grave and look up Carey Cemetery, I see there are already 1,289 interments. Ninety-two percent have been photographed. So, I know I’ll be adding pictures to 8% of the existing 1,289. Then, I’ll be adding memorials for those beyond the 1,289. I believe there are at least 2,000 gravesites there. OH! There are four photo requests listed. I need to work on those! I will use the master list at the town hall, which was compiled in 1935. I will walk down each row with my list in hand and photograph all the headstones. If there are ones that are not on my list, then I will document what the headstone says. In the end, my goal is for all people buried there to have digital memorials with photographs included.

It is good to let the people in the town offices know what you are doing. This way when they get inquiries by phone from people looking for where their ancestors are buried they can direct them to the Find a Grave site.



Overgrowth around a flat stone. Photograph courtesy of Cindy Davis.

PY: What’s next? 


CD: I want to work on replacing the broken headstones in Jewett City Cemetery. For the ones that can’t be read, I hope to help with getting stones put in front with the person’s name and dates of birth and death. Also, I’d like to get the flat stones that are buried raised up so they don’t disappear completely.

And then who knows; after Canterbury, perhaps I’ll move on to another town!


PY: What is the most satisfying part of these projects?


CD: I have gotten a lot of notes from people around the country thanking me for posting pictures of headstones on Find a Grave. Some people have never seen the graves of their family members. They can go on and leave virtual flowers since they can’t get to the actual gravesite. I like the idea of remembering those who have lived and died. This is a tangible way of remembering them.


Interview by:
Melissa Gordon