cemetery

Technology and tombstones: Cemeteries try to cross the digital divide

(First published on the American Observer Web Site Oct. 20, 2009.)

The cabinet is a regular wood grain- a homemade piece of furniture specially made to house a brand-new server without drawing too much attention. But it does anyway, since it is Glenwood Cemetery’s first foray into a more digital world.

Manager Terrance Adkins made it himself, and he hopes that the server is just the first step toward an easier way of doing business. Once the 46,000 names, dates and locations have been put into the system, it will change the way his cemetery in Northeast D.C. operates and helps people discover lost members of their family tree.

The cabinet is a regular wood grain- a homemade piece of furniture specially made to house a brand-new server without Terrance Adkins and his new serverdrawing too much attention. But it does anyway, since it is Glenwood Cemetery’s first foray into a more digital world.

Manager Terrance Adkins made it himself, and he hopes that the server is just the first step toward an easier way of doing business. Once the 46,000 names, dates and locations have been put into the system, it will change the way his cemetery in Northeast D.C. operates and helps people discover lost members of their family tree.

“It’s really going to be wonderful. That’s going to be the best part of it, filling in those blanks,” Adkins said.

As new technology continues to impact business, social networks and lifestyles, it is also putting pressure on cemeteries in the area and across the nation to exchange their paper records for digital graveyards. As the cemetery care and maintenance industry continues to grow- with more than $13 billion in sales in 2002 and growing- expectations for instant access has grown as well.

That is why the National Cemetery Association (NCA) has been busy converting more than 2.2 million paper records into an easily searchable electronic format. The NCA is a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs and is responsible for overseeing hundreds of cemeteries across the country.

Joe Nasari, the director of business requirements for the NCA is responsible for the switch to electronic records, said they wanted to build a system that will let relatives know where their family members are buried, and retrieve basic information.

The same software will also be available at automated kiosks in the cemeteries and will give visitors access to a map showing the exact location of specific tombstones. People can also access this information on a smart phone with browsing capabilities.

The effort to go digital took more than three years, and although it began as a simple way to access records, it became apparent that this information belonged online.

“As we were doing that, we realized this would be good to put on the web,” Nosari said.

He added that as the Internet has grown and ease of access has grown, its ability to connect people makes putting cemetery records online seem like a foregone conclusion. And their database grows by about 250,000 records each year.

“If we hadn’t done this before we would definitely be doing it now,” Nosari said. “It’s probably something we should have been doing a long time ago.”

It was a long time ago when Rock Creek Cemetery began to digitize their records. The process began in the mid ’90s and since then, Rock Creek has decided to add mapping technology to help visitors locate family members.

William Hadley, the head of administration and finance for the cemetery, said that guests expect to be told where loved ones are buried instantly, and digital records help them provide those services.

“I think that people expect this,” Hadley said. “At some of the older cemeteries this would be the exception rather than the rule.”

Although most of the records are now online, Hadley said that while they are adding new records, old records are being updated or corrected; making their transition to digital records an ongoing process.

“I think when you are in the process of doing the work you sometimes wonder if the end result is going to be worth it,” Hadley said. “But once its done if it’s accurate, than it certainly will be.”

Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) is also currently updating and putting together online records from the more than 300,000 people buried there.

In a 2008 report to Congress, ANC detailed its goals for an automated system, which includes automated help kiosks throughout the cemetery.

“ANC’s automation project is intended to bring the cemetery operations and management into the 21st century, keeping its vital historical records safe, making those records accessible and making appropriate use of technology in line with government and industry best practices for cemetery management.”

The demand has increased for cemetery management software in recent years, according to Brandon Finley, the vice-president for Ramaker & Associates. His company designs Internet and mapping software for cemeteries across the country, including the United States Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, MD.

“Compared to what it was like three to four years ago, demand has definitely increased,” Finley said.

He said that the biggest hurdle was still the labor of digitizing the records, but the cost of hosting the information and implementing the software has gone down. He said that processes that used to take forever are now performed in minimal amounts of time.

“It used to take hours, now it takes a few seconds,” Finley said. “Ultimately, every cemetery will have that stuff on the web.”

Even cemeteries that have been abandoned are being located and put online for people to research. Anne Brockett, the Montgomery County Cemetery inventory coordinator and a historic preservationist, helped oversee a year-long effort to locate and document cemeteries in Maryland that have long since been abandoned.

“A lot of cemeteries are not still active. They are not going to have people keeping records or putting things online,” Brockett said.

The project, which begun in 2005, is an ongoing effort to record the location and size of these cemeteries and put the information online. For Brockett, Internet is the future destination for projects like hers.

“I consider it the way of the future. It just makes sense. That’s where people want to go,” Brockett said. “It’s critically important if you want to get the information out there.”

And as Terrance Adkins at Glenwood Cemetery prepares another launch attempt to put his information “out there” and end what he called “an awful, tedious process,” he is anticipating the reactions of people who get to look through the early years of the cemetery.

“When we get those books and all those names start to go into that system,it’s going to help all of us. It’s going to fill in some blanks for the people who died from 1854 up until and past the Civil War,” Adkins said.

“They will be online and people will just be going crazy.”