Headstones and Burial Sites
Locating burial sites of your ancestors can be very rewarding. Many people feel a personal connection when standing in front of an ancestor’s headstone. Headstones can reveal information about your ancestor. The headstone itself, or its proximity to other headstones, can also contain clues to other family relationships. In the past, getting this information required spending a lot of time at cemeteries!
Online indexes such as Find A Grave helped simplify this to some degree. Find A Grave became a “regular” in the toolbox of genealogists. However, a new player has arrived making it easier than ever before to locate headstones and leverage burial sites as a research tool. The site is BillionGraves.com.
BillionGraves sprang on to the genealogy scene about 5 years ago. They have definitely made an impact. In a short period of time they have created a robust community of over 600,000 registered volunteers. These volunteers go to cemeteries near and far taking photographs of headstones and transcribing them. Volunteers use the BillionGraves mobile app to snap photos while instantly recording the exact location of the headstone using GPS coordinates. Their database comprises 22 million GPS-tagged headstone records from countries around the world. They have nearly doubled the size of their database in the last 18 months.
Their goal is to photograph and transcribe one billion headstones – and then keep going!
BillionGraves offers photographs, indexes and even GPS data for free through the BillionGraves.com website, free mobile app, and through partners.
Searching for a Grave
The Mesa City Cemetery in Mesa, Arizona is a very large cemetery. It is nearly half a mile long and has over 40,000 interments! A few years ago I visited the cemetery to visit my paternal grandfather’s headstone. I had actually been there for the graveside service and thought it would be easy to locate. Unfortunately, I spent nearly an hour searching and never did locate it.
The BillionGraves search feature helps me locate his headstone immediately! GPS location information is available for all the headstones in the BillionGraves database. Next time I am in the area I can use the mobile app to get navigation directions to within a few feet of the headstone! What a time saver!
BG Plus Features
I recently paid for a premium subscription to BillionGraves.com. They call their premium service “BillionGraves Plus.”
BillionGraves Plus removes advertising on the site and adds additional features including the following:
- Global Family: This feature allows you to find ALL headstones of a given surname anywhere in the world! You can filter by country, state, county, and even cemetery to narrow your search. This can be useful when 1) your family “unexpectedly” lit a shuck and headed west, or 2) when you are just struggling to find someone and “standard” searches aren’t giving results.
- Family Plots and Nearby Graves: More than 70% of people are buried in family plots. These two features let you search for people with the same surname and also shows all recorded nearby graves.
- Notifications: Create a search and get notified whenever new matching records are added to the database.
I was excited to give the premium features a try.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
In addition to my grandpa Taylor, I have many other family members in the Mesa City Cemetery. I decide to do a search for all those with the surname ‘Tiffany’ in the Mesa Cemetery. The search allows you to enter country, state, county, and cemetery. None of these are required, however, and you can keep the search as broad as you would like. Be aware that searching for a common surname with a broad geographic reach can take a very long time. In fact, when I did a global search for ‘Taylor’ the search wasn’t done after 10 minutes and it finally stopped trying. Perhaps that was an isolated incident or an issue with my Internet connection at the time.
My narrow search for all the Tiffany’s in the Mesa City Cemetery came up almost instantaneously. It has a list of results on the left hand side and map pins showing the grave location on a satellite view of the cemetery. Clicking on a name in the list does two things. First, it changes the “main person” (shown in bold orange letters) and displays a thumbnail view of the headstone at the top above the list. Second, it highlights the map pin on the map to the right, changing the color from orange to blue.
Asa York Tiffany
I select the second one in the list which is Asa Tiffany. Asa York Tiffany is my 3rd great-grandfather. He is buried near the eastern edge of the cemetery. There is a small cluster of pins near his as well. I can explore these in a couple different ways. Both ways help in locating burial sites near him. First, I can click on a map pin to select it. This has the same effect as clicking on a name on the left. I notice that George Tiffany and Eliza May Tiffany are buried very near Asa. Ellen Celeste (Woodward) Tiffany should be right next to Asa, but there is not a separate pin on the map. It may be that they are so close that the system cannot differentiate between the two.
I can also explore cemetery plots that are nearby in a different way. By clicking on the name of the “main person” (in orange text) below the image it takes me to a details page. From here I can learn quite a bit more.
Grave Site Page
As shown in the image above, the “Grave site” page has 9 sections to it. You can scroll through each one or jump directly to one area by clicking on it in the list to the left. The first thing I do is to click the star next to his name. This saves Asa York Tiffany as a “favorite.” This allows me to quickly come back to it anytime. I can do this by selecting “Favorite graves” from the “Research” menu.
So, back to our research of Asa York Tiffany. The information available includes:
- Life information – This is basic data extracted from the headstone itself such as name, birth date, death date, and marriage date if available.
- Family Plots – This is a miniature of the screen we just came from. It shows everyone with the same surname in that cemetery.
- Grave Site – This gives you the exact location of his grave site. It also includes a count of nearby records in the database (165!) as well as again telling you there are 20 other Tiffany’s buried in this cemetery. Lastly, it includes information about the cemetery itself.
- MyHeritage – Through a partnership with the online genealogical database MyHeritage, BillionGraves tells you he quantity and types of records that MyHeritage has about this individual. It does the search for you! In this case MyHeritage has over 600 potential matches for Asa York Tiffany.
- Family – This shows relationship data either shown on the headstone or added by users.
- Nearby Graves – Displays a map of the grave site and surrounding area. Pins of nearby graves are shown, and you can retrieve information about them by clicking on each pin.
- Memories – Allows you to upload photos and text about this person.
- Other Sources – Displays confirmed matches to other partner sites such as FamilySearch.org
- Global Family – Displays locations of burial sites with the same surname on a “global” scale. By default it searches all records in the same country.
Edit Life Information
Before we go much further I realize I need to fix a transcription error on this record. The first hint of the error caught my eye on the initial search. If the headstone reads “Asa York Tiffany” why did the link only say “Asa Tiffany?” Then on the Grave Site page under Life Information I noticed it says “Asa Tiffany (York)”. My suspicion is that the transcriber assumed that Asa was a female and that York was “her” maiden name.
This doesn’t upset me in the least. After all, the photos and the transcriptions have all been done by volunteers! What a great service! And even better, BillionGraves gives me the opportunity to edit the information!
Just to the right of the “Life Information” section is a pencil icon. I click on this and then choose “Edit Record.” I very quickly remove “York” from the “Maiden Name” field and place it next to “Asa” in the “First Name(s)” field. Before saving my changes I also enter his FamilySearch ID. This ties it to his record in the FamilySearch Family Tree and will make it easier to auto-match the burial source if it wasn’t there already.
I am now ready to explore “Nearby Graves.” I am excited about this feature because I hope it will help me find family members – such as in-laws or married daughters – with a different surname than “Tiffany.” I jump down to this section and then click on the “View Full Screen” icon above the map. At first I see nothing but a blank screen. I simply click the refresh button, and it immediately begins to load records. (Note when I have done this at other times, it loads just fine the first time).
There is an ellipse drawn around the grave site of Asa York Tiffany which encompasses the search area. You can click on one of the white dots and expand or shrink the search area. A great tool for locating burial sites! Over on the left, in a now familiar fashion is a list of the search results. They are listed in order of proximity to the person we searched on. This is a very cool feature!
You have to remember that the GPS coordinates will only be as accurate as the device and the satellites at the time the photo was taken. Usually it is accurate to within 10-30 feet.
I am able to start researching all of these people that are buried next to or near my subject person. This is just what I would do if I were in the cemetery myself. Except this is MUCH easier. No need to travel, no need to take multiple photos, rubbings, or transcriptions. It probably won’t keep me from visiting cemeteries and locating burial sites in person, but for those that I cannot visit this is awesome.
The “Nearby Graves” feature is by far my favorite feature of BG Plus.
I am very pleased with the features provided by BillionGraves Plus. Locating burial sites of ancestors is a worthwhile endeavor that can often yield amazing results in the progression of your family history research. For those of us who cannot travel to cemeteries far away, BillionGraves provides an experience that approximates the research value of being there in person. I will still visit cemeteries when I am able, but BillionGraves is a wonderful new addition to my toolbox.
I look forward to future growth and expansion of the BillionGraves database. They have made great strides, but many areas are still very sparse. For example, trying to use BillionGraves to locate burial sites of ancestors in North Carolina or Indiana did not bear much fruit at this time. This will improve as the community of volunteers expands and more and more photos are taken and transcribed.
Do you have a favorite story about locating burial sites of your ancestors? Share and comment below!