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Take Another Look at Cemeteries and the Stories Untold They Hold

Ellen Goodwin, Artifcts
October 31, 2023

Reading time: 5 minutes 

What’s with all the interest in cemeteries? Is cemetery tourism really a thing? Isn’t it bad mojo to tromp around where you don’t belong? And why are cemeteries so interesting as to inspire memes about hanging out with dead people and bumper stickers like, “I brake for graveyards?” Genealogists must have seriously healthy senses of humor about their research sources and habits. 

Not being a genealogist or historian, I’ve never quite understood the passion some people have for taking road trips to cemeteries where family are buried, never mind stopping at random ones you may come across.

I can think of three excuses, aka reasons, most of us visit cemeteries: a funeral ceremony, a history lesson, and morbid curiosity. 

A Place of Ceremony and Reflection 

My grandmother died when I was four. My memory of the day is hazy. I remember better the feeling of watching her casket exit the church and thinking how sad it was I wouldn’t see her again. Many people visit cemeteries to remember their loved ones and to take the space they need for conversation, prayer, and thought, honoring those whom they’ve lost.

The power of reflection can make folks do funny things, too. My mother once told me about visiting her parents’ gravesite with one of her siblings. Her normally rather stoic sibling proceeded to lie on the ground next to their parents and ask, “How do I look?” How can you not laugh, even if in a cemetery, about that?

What's the difference between cemetery and graveyard

A Place of History and Community 

I remember much better the solemn awe of walking on a guided tour through Arlington National Cemetery when I visited Washington D.C. on a school field trip. The sheer scale of it and all that it implied registered even with my 14-year-old self. I took a few pictures, now scratchy because the negatives sat for decades in bins. Take my advice: Digitize sooner than later, but first read about my experience!

On that visit, there was something unique that I captured – the tiny green temporary placard that marked the grave of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She had passed away only weeks before our trip, and her resting place beside President John F. Kennedy was a stop along our tour.

Final resting place of JFK and temporary grave marker and resting place of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

 
 
Clearly should have gotten a closer shot. But the shadows tell you many people were crowding in for a pic.

Simple Curiosity 

I visited a local graveyard once in high school: St. Patrick’s Church cemetery in Askeaton, Wisconsin. We were curious which were the oldest of the crumbling tombstones. Obviously, there was no choice but for the oldest to date to the 1850s when the church was founded by Irish immigrants, but we knew nothing of that history. We were teenagers!

Nowadays, a variety of genealogical, historical, and lineage societies, among others, help preserve and document cemeteries. Websites even exist specifically for collective recording of grave markers for others to use to unlock family mysteries and reconstruct community histories. (More on that below!)

Curious, even a little, about visiting a cemetery or graveyard? Wondering what use a graveyard visit may be to you? Read on!

Unlocking Family Mysteries and Continuing Family Storylines at Cemeteries 

For the curious, grave markers provide an abundance of opportunity to play detective. Whether measured in days or decades, that dash between birth year and death year represents a life lived.

The grave markers themselves convey a lot about a person:

      • Where is the marker – What city? A public cemetery? A churchyard? What faith and denomination? Where within the space, relegated to a dark corner or a prime position? 
      • What type of marker is it – The material, style, and size can provide clues about wealth and status and also culture. 
      • What is on the marker – name, date of birth, professional titles, next of kin, cause of death … so much potential. And don't forget to look on the back if it's double sided! Sometimes you’ll find adornments, such as pictures and symbols to puzzle out, too. Our friends over at Legacy Tree Genealogists recently published an article about tombstone symbols. Check it out >
      • Who is nearby – It may be that you discover relatives nearby that you had not yet discovered or are shocked are directly next to the person whose marker you’re interested in.  

One Arti Community member shared a fabulous historical tale with us about the hero who she found buried next to her grandfather. Click the image to listen in! 

Click to listen

Planning a Visit to a Cemetery

Cemetery tourism like my trip to Arlington National Cemetery aside, if you’re planning a personal visit, we’ve collected tips to make your visit more productive and pleasant.

“Google” first. 

All we mean is do your online research first so you can validate as much information as possible about the site and avoid wasting time on your journey or the day you visit. Popular starting points are BillionGraves (find in AppStore and Google Play), Find a Grave, which also offers a cemetery search (find in AppStore), and Cemetary Census, covering a handful of states.

Reach out to local genealogy and historical societies as well as public libraries, too. You’ll meet hobbyists and professionals alike who delight in helping break through family mysteries and brick walls. 

Call ahead. 

Please, call! You need to confirm the public access hours, details about any temporary or permanent off-limits areas, whether they permit rubbings, and if they have historical records on site you can browse, too. (Bring gloves for safe handling!) While you are at it, ask if they offer maps and guided tours. Some even have mobile apps. 

Bring a small kit. 

A soft paintbrush to gently brush dirt off a marker, a grass clipper to reveal hidden areas, and a blanket or pad to crouch down onto for more comfortable access should suffice. Plus rubbing supplies, if permitted.

Think about the time of day. 

Be mindful of lighting during the season and time of day you plan to visit. Age and material can make it challenging to read, never mind photograph, a marker even if you plan to use photo editing software later. An umbrella can help with glares, and of course protect you and your work from the elements. 

Be careful what you ask for. 

We all know history can be ugly. And if it’s family history you’re tracking down, deeply personal, too. Do you really want the answers? Are you prepared to learn Great Grandma did not get buried next to Great Grandpa, but someone else lies between them? What about discovering a child no one ever mentioned? A false or conflicting date of birth or death? And do others in your family want to know what you find? Tread carefully.

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© 2023 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Telling My Story Without the Pressure of a Memoir

Reading time: 4 minutes 

Many of us feel overwhelmed by the prospect of telling our stories never mind authoring a memoir. One. More. Thing. To do. And, "How do I even get started?”  

Companies exist that will send you daily and weekly prompts to help; some will even call you. You answer a question at a time until you get to some state of "done." This is a solid, time-tested strategy for any of life’s larger tasks, breaking it down into something smaller.  

Those question-by-question approaches are not for everyone. You may feel pestered as well as stressed if you “get behind.” And not all of us are great with open-ended questions that lack true personalization.  

Another option is to work with a professional writer. No, not someone you meet for 30 or 60 minutes and with their notes they write or record your life story. Really? That’s a neat trick. If only life were so simple.  

We’re talking about the professionals like with LifeBook Memoirs, whose work is a true art, a physical family heirloom, and a gift. The level of care, privacy, and personalization to your needs, coupled with the product they print makes anyone a believer in the power of a memoir. 

But what if you want are not yet ready to plunge into the time and cost of a memoir and still want to privately make progress on your own? That's what we're talking about here today.

The Artifcts Approach to Writing Your Story, Your Memoir 

I’ve been telling my story through travel mementos, collections, books, photos and more, slowly but surely through my Artifcts. No outline. No grand scheme. As I come across or receive something that inspires me, I Artifct it.  

I'll use one of my most recent Artifcts as a simple example. I took my 13-year-old daughter to see the Broadway show Six. She loves choir and drama, and yet she couldn’t have been less excited in the days leading up to the show. I stayed quiet (which if you know me is quite a feat) and waited. The lights dimmed, the six wives and the all-female band took the stage. And ... magic! 

My daughter was enthralled, smiling, and shooting looks at me that said, “Wow!” After the show she told me it was even better than Hamilton. Never could I ever have imagined anything would outshine Hamilton in her eyes.  

When we got home, I Artifcted the physical playbill, the digital one with the six wives’ signatures, and a pic of my daughter at the theatre. Why? I’m not going to keep that playbill, but I am going to keep the memory of that day for always, for her, for me. 

Artifct of Broadway musical Six from Egoody

 
 
Fun fact: When I later searched Artifcts to pull up my Artifct, I found a second Artifct for Six. I had forgotten that my co-founder took her daughter to Six, too. Don’t you love uncovering surprise connections? 

The Best of Social Media, Meets the Best of Artifcts 

I always tell people that when we built Artifcts, all the social media giants were on Capitol Hill defending themselves and their policies. We had the opportunity to build something better. So, I’ve been privately Artifcting the big little moments in my life through the objects I collect without the pressure of view counts and follows. 

Then one day about two years into Artifcts, a genealogist challenged me to show how Artifcts could easily help someone to tell their life story. Apparently this is the holy grail of the genealogy world. I eagerly accepted that challenge and gave myself 10 minutes to complete it. 

How? Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, I began at the beginning, using the Artifcts I had already created to tell my story in full color (and with audio, video, and supporting documentation, too).  

      1. Created a new Artifct 
      2. Titled it. I was literal, “My Life Story.” 
      3. Picked a category. I used “Life Moments: Other Life Moments.” 
      4. Filled in the story. Within the 10 minutes, I wrote an 1,100-word story that included approximately 40 Artifcts via @ mentions and wove in each of my family members, key friends and other loved ones with @ mentions, too, giving them instant ‘View’ access to my story.
      5. Added documentation. Totally optional, but in this case I chose to privately attach my birth and marriage certificates. 
      6. Tagged it. #LifeStory and #Genealogy made sense to me for single-click sorting to see other Artifcts with the same tags in the future. 

 

 
 
 
This 2.5 minute video shows you the @ feature in action.

Imagine the surprise of the genealogist who challenged me when I privately shared the Artifct with her and it was not just a story, but a multi-media surprise of layered stories about myself, my loved ones, the places of been, and the experiences I have accumulated, aka life!

The text of an Artifct blurred out for privacy but showing the title and names of linked Artifcts within the text

 
 
The green text represents the linked Artifcts that are sprinkled throughout my "life story" Artifct.
 
 
Don’t have 40 Artifcts? You could tell your story in 5 Artifcts, 30, or 100s. Artifcts you don’t weave into your story will always be one click away in your Artifcts collection for the full-er story! 

How Will You Write and Share Your Life Story? 

Artifcts is a gift. The reality is that if I were no longer here tomorrow, my family would know me and remember me with support from my Artifcts. No life story required.  

The life story Artifct I created is simple to create and a powerful, one-stop opportunity to hear the story from my perspective. And, best yet I can go in and edit and add to it any time I want. My story is not done. My perspective may yet shift, even on the way I see the past changes. And, who knows, one day my Artifcts may be the perfect fodder for LifeBook Memoirs to help me write my memoir. 

No matter how you choose to tell your stories, we beg you:

      • Create a digital backup. And make sure your loved ones know your story exists and how to get to it and ALL the supporting materials (photos, documents etc.) that went into it.
      • Do not let perfection or some idea that your stories don’t matter stand in your way. There’s no one “youer” than you!

We promise you it’s the big little details in life that everyone loves you for and wants to remember you for, too.

______________

You may also enjoy these ARTIcles by Artifcts:

Not Sure What to Write? Tips From Author Jeff Greenwald

The Value of Cherished Objects in Our Life Stories

Timelines Have Arrived at Artifcts!

A Family History in Five Artifcts

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© 2023 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Join Us for the 12 Days of Artifcts, 2023 Edition

Join us for some holiday fun!

Starting Friday, we'll publish a daily theme to Artifct as part of our 12 Days of Artifcts. No turtle doves or partridge in a pear tree, but each of the 12 Days of Artifcts offers you the opportunity to take a breath amidst your holiday merriment and chaos. We'll provide the themes, you provide the Artifcts.

No matter your faith or tradition, all are welcome!

New to Artifcts or only have a free account? That's okay! Once you sign up free, you can create your first 5 Artifcts free and see what you think before buying a membership.

And you'll have no excuse for not being ready as we're giving you a head start by sharing with you today the daily themes. Let's have some fun. And remember, if you make any of your 12 Days of Artifcts public, tag them #12DaysofArtifcts for others to easily discover and enjoy. We look forward to Friday, December 1, for the first of the 12 Days of Artifcts!

Psst ... They'll be ANOTHER surprise on December 1, too. Make sure you pop over to Artifcts.com to learn more.

Christmas tree made up of numbers, each with a topic to Artifct

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© 2023 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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The Fall Series of Evenings with Artifcts was a Smash Hit

The fall series of Evenings with Artifcts brought in people who were brand new to Artifcts and earned outstanding reviews from new and existing Arti Community members. In fact, 97% of survey respondents rated the series "very" or "extremely" valuable and informative. We’re feeling the love.

What does this mean for you? Well, to start with, we’re definitely bringing back Evenings with Artifcts this spring! And, we can start planning it with confidence and hopefully with your help, too. We’re on a mission to spur and support conversations about the ‘stuff’ in our lives and we’d love your input!

What Should We Talk About Next?

Here are but a few of the ideas that we received, verbatim, from survey respondents.  

      • Artificial Intelligence 
      • Export & integration tips with digital vaults (Just you wait. You’ll like what’s coming.) 
      • Bring Gena [Philbert-Ortega] back 
      • Repeat all your topics with new presenters 
      • Real Arti Community members and how they are using Artifcts (Sounds great! Write us at Editor@Artifcts.com to volunteer.)
      • What to do with old photos (Start here, and we'll continue to expand!) 
      • The psychology of letting go of our own material possessions and helping others to do the same (We have an ARTIcles story on this topic scheduled for January! You may also want to read our ARTIcles related to health and aging.) 
      • What other family genealogy folks find working for them (Will do! We've had so many great conversations with genealogists and genealogy-related ARTIcles with our learnings so far.)

Sharing this wish list with you is both about transparency and about sharing the fun with all of you in the Arti Community! 

What do you think of these ideas? What would YOU like to learn and experience in the spring series? Write to us at Editor@Artifcts.com and we’ll be sure to review all your suggestions!

Until then, if you're looking for the Evenings with Artifcts playbacks or related resources from any of our series, they’re all here for you. 

XOXO Artifcts

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© 2023 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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