Host Ben Brock Johnson and producer Quincy Walters go to a historic Boston cemetery to try out findagrave.com — a volunteer-generated database of millions of graves throughout the world.
At the cemetery, Ben and Quincy have a hard time finding anyone who's ever heard of the site that's been around since 1995. Despite this, Quincy makes the argument that "Find a Grave" is one of the first social media sites that doesn't get the respect it deserves. "But how is it social media if no one knows about it?" Ben asks.
Then the pair encounter a veteran user of the site. After that, they get ahold of the guy who started "Find a Grave". Does he think "Find a Grave" is social media? Find out in this episode of Endless Thread.
- Find A Grave Facebook Group
- OneZero Medium| How Ancestry.com’s Find A Grave Encourages Bad Actors and Bad Data
- Extreme Genes Podcast: Episode 13
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Quincy: Testing, one, two, three, testing, testing. Alright, I'm recording.
Ben: Alright, I have a question for you.
B: Alright, so it's 8:30 in the morning, Thursday, producer Quincy Walters and I are saddling up in the trusty Endless Thread mobile, a 2012 Toyota RAV4. Very reliable, sensible vehicle.
Q: And we are heading to a cemetery.
B: Is it okay if we go to a famous person's grave?
Q: Sure, who's grave?
B: I'll tell you when we get there.
Q: Okay, is it uh, is it a person, uh, a recently famous person?
B: That's a tough question to answer.
Q: Is it Samuel Adams?
B: That was a really good guess. It's Samuel Adams.
Q: Is it really?
Q: Oh, okay. Well then, that's fine.
B: Because my family is related to Samuel Adams.
Q: What? Okay. Wow. Oh, man.
B: That was like a magical — how did you do that? I don't know how you did that.
Q: I've been on a few tours of Boston, and without fail, they'll point to the Beantown pub downtown, and then to the cemetery across the street. . .
Q: And they always say it's the only place in the world where you can drink an ice cold Samuel Adams while looking across the street at an ice cold Samuel Adams.
B: Oh. That's really, that's pretty good, I like that, I appreciate that as a dad joke.
Q: But in retrospect, I'm realizing it was kind of insensitive of me to joke about your family member who passed away.
B: What do you mean?
Q: Um the ice-cold Samuel Adams.
B: Ah, Quincy, it's okay. It's been several generations since my relative Sam Adams.
B: So it's totally fine. So we went to downtown Boston to the granary burying grounds, which, you know, granaries and places where you're burying dead bodies sounds like a bad combination to me. If we're talking about storing grain, I don't know.
Historical Reenactor: And investigation, and they discovered, to their horror there are the fluids from the bodies were going right into the drinking water.
B: That's reenactor talking about how in days of yore, fluids from dead bodies were in the drinking water.
Q: I mean, you said it, burying the dead with the food was a choice. You found a heck of a grave, Ben.
B: Well, we haven't found it yet exactly.
B: It's a very old and famous graveyard.
Q: John Hancock, Paul Revere, James Otis, Samuel Adams.
B: The night before, for the first time in my life, I went to findagrave.com. It's this website that came about in 1995. OG. Oh gosh, what, what is that? What is 1995 internet? Uh, ebaumsworld, aim chat. What is 1995 internet look like?
Q: And basically, Find a Grave is a directory of cemeteries across the world, generated pretty much entirely by volunteers.
B: I was talking to my mom, and she was basically, I was like, 'who from our family might be buried around here?' And she was like, 'Well, there's this guy, you know, Charles McFeeders, but he put an A into our name. So I don't know if like, you'll be able to find him.'
Q: Oh man.
Q: And then Ben typed it in with an A and badabing.
B: Just like that. I put that A in, on Find a Grave. I turned it into Mac feeders, and we found him.
Q: Oh wow.
B: And we, and his wife was buried there too, so I knew Gertrude.
B: Then I typed in great great great great grand something or other Samuel Adams's name and badaboom! There was information on where the grave is located, and several pictures of it.
Q: But pictures can only help us out so much. How many podcasters does it take to find a grave?
B: Oh man, stay tuned and you're gonna find out. In this episode, we're gonna dig into this website that's been around since the infancy of the World Wide Web that no one seems to know about.
Q: And I'm going to make the case that findagrave.com should be considered a paragon of early social media. I'm Quincy Walters.
B: I'm Ben Brock Johnson. How's it social media if no one knows about it? Oh, well, you're listening to Endless Thread.
Q: Well, it's an oft unrecognized platform that predates YouTwitFace or TickVine or SnapReel. Hey, maybe someone you know, is already on it. We're coming to you from WBUR, Boston's NPR station.
B: Social media icon. Today's episode: Find A Grave.
B: All right, so Quincy and I are back in Granary cemetery in downtown Boston, looking for Samuel Adams's plot, and we are going based off of some pictures from findthegrave. com
B: I think one of these images is from find a grave.
B: It's a real pretty scraggly looking stone here.
Q: There's a brown building directly behind it.
B: Yeah. And the white and the white building too.
Let's just say Granary Cemetery is kind of a mess in some parts, jumbled up headstones and most of them are unreadable.
B: Granary and cemetery just don't go together, I guess, Quincy.
Q: But cemeteries and the internet, Ben, that's a different story. The first and most important fact that qualifies Find a Grave as social media is, it's an online platform used by a vast amount of people.
Q: Do you think findagrave.com is a form of social media, or?
Jeremy Berry: I don't think so.
Q: Yeah, well, I know so. And I'm going to prove it. The first and most important fact that qualifies Find a Grave as social media is It's an online platform used by a vast amount of people.
B: Have you ever heard of that website?
Unidentified man: No, I haven't, but it's interesting. Find a Grave.
B: Yikes, man, Quincy, it's not looking great.
Q: Okay, but by the end of this episode, you'll learn about Find a Grave if you're not already familiar with it, and you'll be correctly convinced that it's social media.
Q: Um, excuse me, have you ever heard of Findagrave.com? No, okay. Alright. Okay. Alright.
B: Okay, Quincy, it seems like your first contention about it being broadly used is falling apart, man. Anyway, if you guessed that it takes two podcasters to find a grave, you'd be right.
B: All right, here it is. Samuel Adams. Okay, I see a lot of change thrown at the base of this grave. I see a bunch of little rocks. I see a Sam Adams beer cap. That almost seems like it's purposefully, like, placed. Here lies buried Samuel Adams, signer of the Declaration of Independence, governor of this Commonwealth, a leader of men, and an ardent patriot. It's nice to be able to visit a relative. Hmm. All right.
Q: All right.
B: That was a nice moment. Okay. Let's go find that guy in the cap back there and see what he's doing.
Q: So, in the span of time it takes two podcasters to find a single grave, there's a dude in the back of the cemetery who looks like he's strategically going to multiple graves, maybe checking them off of a list?
Q: There's a guy back there who has like a clipboard, I wonder, or a notepad, I wonder what he's doing.
Q: From my observations of Find a Grave users, there are a lot of people of retirement age, but the guy with the clipboard looks really young.
B: He's kneeling down and taking pictures of headstones. He's got a beige Red Sox cap on, polo shirt tucked into jeans, the kind of guy who sticks out by how much he blends in.
Q: Yeah, he's really going to work. He might work here.
B: Or . . .
Q: He might be a find a graver.
Q: I couldn't help but notice you kind of like taking pictures and writing things down. Have you heard of findagrave. com? Do you use — ?
Jeremy: Very active on it.
Q: You are?
B: You are? Wow.
B: Man, we were psyched to find 22 year old Jeremy Berry, who, as he said, is very active on Find a Grave. Even though he's only 22, he could be considered a Find a Grave veteran and super user. And it's such a coincidence that we found him at this time of day. I mean, what are the odds?
Q: His day job is as an archivist for a town in Massachusetts, so that tipped the odds in our favor. But he's been doing Find a Grave longer than he's had that job.
Q: And how long have you been doing it?
Jeremy Berry: Probably since I was about 10 or 12.
B: Wow. You've been doing it for 12 years?
Jeremy: I think part of the fun of it to me is that every time I track down a relative in a cemetery, there's always gonna, people are buried together. And you'll always find things you don't expect to that help fill in the gaps because they're buried in family plots.
Q: Okay, so Jeremy is proof that people do use this platform. But it is worth mentioning that Jeremy isn't just any old Find a Graver. He was named Volunteer of the Month six months ago.
Jeremy: I think the whole thing is just a lot, very exciting, but I'm biased because I work as an archivist and conservator, so I'm immersed in history all the time, so this is not so far out of my interest.
B: And this is the part in the argument, Quincy, where you back all this up with hard numbers, right? But as I understand it, you've been in a sort of unfruitful back and forth with Find a Grave for almost two months?
Q: Yeah, actually, I've been given the runaround by Ancestry. com, that big genealogy site that has those poignant commercials, I guess, is how you would define them.
Poignant Ancestry Commercial: Improving everything we do to serve you better. Because your family's story has always been our priority.
Q: Because they purchased Find a Grave back in 2013. Anyway, every--
B: It's like, uh, Facebook buys Instagram, Ancestry buys Find a Grave.
Q: Exactly. Hey, it repeats itself. If it quacks like a social media platform. Anyway everyone was on vacation, then somebody was on maternity leave. I spoke to one journalist who said good luck getting those numbers, but Ben?
B: Yes, Quincy?
Q: They don't call me Quincy Walters, PI, podcast investigator for nothing. Take a look at these numbers I was able to squeeze out of them.
B: Alright, they've got 6 to 7 million unique visitors a month, Quincy. Not too amazing, not too shabby. Tens of thousands of unique contributors a month. Okay. Okay. Which is a lot. Not exactly a number though. And you also apparently tried to get people from a Facebook group, uh, to talk to you and then you got kicked out of it.
Q: Must we bring that up, Ben? But yeah, there's a Facebook group that a lot of people troubleshoot things on with the site. I was initially accepted in the group and, you know, told them my intentions. Then I got ignored, then kicked out after I started reaching out to some people. But here are some more numbers: 226 million digital memorials have been created on Find a Grave since it began in 1995, and it's used in 248 countries.
B: Okay. Not to interrupt you, Quincy, but does Jeremy even think Find a Grave is social media?
Jeremy: I don't think so because most of, um, I think it's a, I think of it as a digital repository to host all of the images and documentations, updates on things. You know, you have a photo perhaps taken in 1990 and one 2005 people upload various things and you can see the status of something over time. It's a repository for information about the stones
Q: Okay, I wasn't expecting Jeremy to make my point for me, but a digital repository that hosts images and updates and statuses and documents and things is like the most eloquent way to concede that Find a Grave is social media. I mean, come on, court dismissed. Bring in the dancin lobsters. I don't think Ben understands that reference, but if you're a certain age, you do.
B: I'll take it.
Q: And that brings us to my second contention. It has democratic content sharing. Users create a profile. They can upload a profile picture, they can post graves and direct message each other. There's even a forum for it.
B: Okay. All right. This all sounds promising. Um, you know, updating people's statuses to dead. I get it. I guess it's all about how you use the site though, right? So Jeremy says he uses it because he's really into genealogy and being a historian of sorts for his family. Plus, he says it's a family hobby.
Jeremy: It's myself and my mother who both-- I'm on the East Coast and she's in California. And we both fulfill photo requests for people. I've fulfilled probably 5,500 photo requests for people.
Q: Okay, maybe it's a family hobby for him, but this leads to my third point. Find a Grave connects people, like Jeremy and his mom and some of his genealogy friends. But it connects people in other ways, right? You heard him say that he fulfills photo requests?
B: Yeah, what does that mean exactly?
Q: Okay, so let's say you're trying to find out where exactly a relative is buried. Maybe all you know is that they're buried in a particular state or city.
Jim Tipton: You push a button, um, that says, I'd like to see a photo of the headstone, if it's not already there. Uh, an email goes out to all of our contributors that live near that cemetery, and usually with Then like, a day, maybe a week, you'll get an email back saying that photo's been taken and posted to Find a Grave. And it's one of the most. . .
This is the founder, Jim Tipton, on the Extreme Genes radio show back in 2013.
Extreme Genes intro music: Extreme Genes, Extreme Genes, Extreme Genes Oh every Christmas we visit my Uncle Fred in prison.
B: Wow, that theme music, just wow.
Q: Yeah, it is sensory overload in a way. But we managed to get a hold of Jim at the last minute, and it was kinda like a Wizard of Oz moment.
Jim: Oh, really? Okay, well, you peeled back the curtain, and here I am, uh, in all my disappointing non glory. Well to be honest, I don't do-- I haven't talked with-- I used to do like radio and just newspapers and just interviews every so often. It's just part of running this site and I don't do it very often anymore. So I'm a little rusty, I suppose, but it's kind of nice to talk about it again.
Q: So far so good, Jim. Jim Tipton founded Find a Grave back in the 90s because he's a self described insomniac who wanted to teach himself HTML, and he said the photo request function is by far his favorite part of it.
Jim: Because it helps people make kind of personal connections. You know, seeing, seeing that name, etched in stone, it's has a lot more gravity to it than just simply seeing the name typed out on the screen. So it works tremendously well. It's got like an 82 percent overall success rate.
B: So, let's get back to super find a graver Jeremy. In addition to Jeremy and his mom fulfilling these photo requests to people, Jeremy also creates digital memorials on his own. On Find a Grave, these users, called Memorial Managers, often end up as sort of digital caretakers. Undertakers? Of larger numbers of graves.
Jeremy: So that's a really interesting thing. I manage about 100,000 memorials, and we're just shy of. And I have created them in bulk. I get freedom of information law requests from different towns, get massive lists of the the cemeteries, and some of that I've contributed to find a grave over the years.
B: And he sees this as a service.
Q: Yeah, because he thinks it's important that people be remembered. Up next, Jeremy throws shade on some graves, in certain states, and a final ruling on whether find a grave is the OG social media site.
Q: Location, location, location, that's the incantation of realtors, they say it's the most important thing in real estate, and cemeteries aren't exempt from this. Jeremy says the quality of the cemetery depends on where it is geographically. For instance, in the state of Rhode Island, for example, all the cemeteries are clearly marked with distinct signs.
Jeremy: You cross two minutes over into Connecticut and they're all in people's backyards. There's no signage. The state has no help in locating them. So a lot of the local politics really have a lot to do with it. And the ones that are in more sparsely populated areas get a lot less help and attention.
Q: So, he sees find a grave as a way to tidally remember someone if their resting place is a little dilapidated.
B: And the site has been around so long that Jeremy finds himself re uploading new pictures of cemeteries already online, because pictures posted a long time ago may be grainy from a film camera, or have the heavy pixilation from an old digital camera, or someone's thumb in the way.
Q: And since he grew up with the internet while also having this old fashioned hobby, he's the perfect person to do this kind of thing.
Jeremy: A lot of the ones I photograph have already been-- they're already images online, but they're so low resolution that if you zoom in to read the text, then what does that say? You can't read a word of it. You just see the outline of the stone.
B: Wow, you're really-- I feel like it's a service that you're Providing and it seems like you do it freely, but it's interesting to the ancestry presumably profits off of it.
Jeremy: Yeah, it didn't used to be that way. So it's it's a shame. I, you know, it was the guy who founded it who lived in Utah in the early 2000s and I think it's a great shame that it was bought by Ancestry because in a lot of ways that kind of defeated the purpose, but . . .
Q: Jeremy's not the only find a grave user left with a slight sour taste after the acquisition, but Ancestry's purchase could reinforce my first contention that a lot of people use the site. Here's Jim on that Genealogy radio show.
Jim Tipton: When it came to actually building out the site, it was still just me. It was just way too big to keep going in that manner, and I realized that really the site was falling behind because I basically couldn't keep up. And to try to kind of find a solution I realized it had to get bigger. And one way to do that was to work with Ancestry.
Q: Also, Ancestry fared well in the deal, because Ancestry has acquired a volunteer generated database of millions of graves, which definitely helps with its genealogy side of the business.
B: And the thing is, Find a Grave founder Jim Tipton says it was never intended to be this broadly used thing when it came on the scene in 1995.
Jim: And I put up a webpage like some people were doing in those early, early days of the internet and I was into visiting famous graves. I went up and visited Al Capone's grave was one of the first famous ones I visited. And I just had maybe a hundred listings that I'd kind of gotten from reading biographies and things. There really weren't that many websites, so people were kind of checking out any new website at the time. And people started sending me, like, 'You gotta have Elvis on that list.' And they started sending me, 'Oh, you know, Marilyn Monroe needs to be on there.' And again this was just famous names initially.
B: If you want your social media company to be successful, Quincy, you gotta recruit some celebrities to get on there, right?
Q: Absolutely. I can tell you're warming up to my theory, Ben. And gradually, people started putting their favorite celebrities on the site. Talking to us, Jim said, there's just something about being near a famous person's resting place. Then, people started putting relatives on the site to memorialize them in what could be a more permanent way than stone. Which is online, and if you concede that Find a Grave is social media, perhaps it's the most democratic of all. It's a digital space that's for the living as much as it is for the dead.
B: It's a whole online ecosystem with family historians like Jeremy, genealogists and power-hungry clout-chasers.
Jeremy: Everyone knows what a memorial collector is within Find a Grave because there's people that just want to have a high count to look like they've done a lot, but really they're just taking on memorials, not updating them and just having their name on it.
Q: A common thing with Find a Grave is that a family member of the deceased will contact a memorial manager, asking them to take the digital grave down for the sake of privacy or for the sake of healing or maybe for the sake of the sanctity of the death of a family member.
B: And a Find a Grave, a memorial manager could either take it down, transfer ownership, or ignore the family's wishes entirely and keep it up online.
Jeremy: I'm not a memorial collector on there, so if somebody contacts and says 'It's my, you know, tenth cousin twice removed' and they want to work with the memorial and do stuff on it, I'll happily transfer it to them But a lot of people don't do that, which is unfortunate.
Q: Here's a comment from a Find a Grave forum from a user called IAmBetterThanYou from Chicago
Q: I know right already off to a good start. 'As many have said if you don't want a photo of a loved one's headstone online Do not get one do not --
B: Like don't get a headstone, Quincy? Is that what they're saying?
Q: I know. 'Do not list an obituary either. Make it so your family member never existed, so you can go on life trying to never think of them again, and wipe them from the annals of existence.' Or they recommend going into the woods like the Unabomber. And, you know, it's very hyperbolic and like this last their last sentence kind of throws everything out of whack, but they finish up by saying there are indeed some power tripping idiots on the site that overzealously guard entries that belong in the hands of others.
B: Wow, it sounds like they're telling on themselves. Wild. Wild. Wild.
Q: But-- and no offense Ben-- I know that technically we did search for your ice cold relative Samuel Adams. I really did want to hear from a regular person who came to find a grave as a relative, an everyday person. So I found Katie Wollman, a Baltimore based writer and professor who, back in 2019, got a phone call.
Katie Wolman: It was my sister. She was showing her fiancé at the time. where my grandmother was from, like her hometown. And so she Googled her and her hometown, and Find a Grave was like the first result. And she was like, 'What is this?'
Q: Up until that point, Katie had never heard of Find a Grave. It had info about where her grandmother was born, and there were pictures and details she and her sister didn't know about. She wrote, quote, my grandmother in death was more popular online than she'd ever been in life.
B: She ended up doing a deep dive into the Find a Grave ecosystem. She wanted to know the likelihood of her getting ownership of her grandmother's digital memorial. She said she encountered good users, people like Jeremy, and there were also the memorial collectors.
Katie: Definitely in it for the competition, definitely wanting to have the most, you know. The one user I spoke to who at that time was the top contributor, he had You know, over 3 million grapes that he had created on Find a Grave.
B: I don't see how anyone would have time to do that.
Q: Yeah, me either. I barely have time to tie my shoe, but she said some will go to far flung regions for the sole purpose of documenting a grave that's not on the site yet. Katie talked to a couple of these memorial collectors, and it seems they get swamped. As the adage goes, more graves, more problems.
Katie: He was pretty proud of that. And he also said, you know, because he was the owner of so many, he gets a lot of requests from. People to, you know, change information to transfer ownership to link. You can link memorials, you know, if they're, if they're part of the same family, that type of thing.
B: This all reminds me of like Pokemon, Quincy.
Q: I know, you got to catch 'em all. But luckily Katie says the person who managed her grandmother's memorial wasn't one of those people. He was more like Jeremy.
Katie: I would say he really was like, just sort of the best example of what a Find a Grave user could be. He really seemed committed to just documenting and he was also really meticulous about going through records and making sure that things were accurate. You know, he would reference like the social security index. That was a couple of years ago.
B: So how's managing her grandmother's digital memorial beenn? Has she been a meticulous digital grave manager?
Katie: That's a good question. I haven't checked in a long time. I am not a very responsible digital grave caretaker. Yeah, I think that I'm still technically the owner and caretaker of her grave.
B: Let's go back to the Granary Cemetery in Boston, where a father daughter duo is visiting from South Carolina and saying they're not familiar with Find a Grave, but they're interested in it. Because they're really into family history. The dad says they've traced some of their lineage, but they don't know specifically where people are buried. He didn't want to be in this story, but daughter Jordan Anderson says she's been interested in using a tool like Find a Grave.
Jordan Anderson: He's being modest. Like, we have familial ties in Virginia, like founding people, like Radford University was named after my family, and that's where his family kind of migrated down from, uh, to South Carolina from there. So that's kind of us and our background. So that would definitely be cool to look up those folks and see where they might be in Virginia and. So, yeah.
Q: The landscape of Find a grave has changed over the years.
Jim: Of course, the advent of the digital camera, massively increased the hobby. Used to, you know, shoot film and then have to scan it. And it was kind of a painful process.
B: But the heart of the site remains the same.
Q: As for Find a Grave's founder, Jim. He says even though he doesn't helm the site, he'll always use it.
Jim: But yeah, I still love to be a cemetery tourist. And I kind of enjoy it even more now that I'm not thinking like, you know, Oh, there's that stupid bug again. I've got to fix that. It's hanging over my. Hanging over my head or whatever.
Q: Earlier we heard Jeremy say he doesn't think Find a Grave is a form of social media. He says it's a repository. But what is social media, if not a digital repository of ourselves?
Q: Yeah, living online memorials. Oh my god, who writes this stuff?
B: Ha ha, you write it, Quincy, you write it.
Q: Would you want somebody to put you on find a grave?
Jeremy Berry: Yeah. So long as one of my own relatives managed the memorial.
B: Jeremy, like most of us, wants to be remembered. Not necessarily by the masses, but by the people who matter.
Q: And hey, maybe someone in Silicon Valley saw Find a Grave back in the nineties and thought, 'Huh, that's something the living should have too.'
Q: I'm curious to know what your thoughts of this are, but in sort of the episode I try to make the argument that Find a grave is probably one of the earliest examples of social media. Do you think that's true or ?
Jim: Yes, I absolutely do.