So many people are curious about their ancestry. They have little or no inkling of their forefathers’ history.
Even less is generally known about when earlier generations passed and where their remains are interred.
Mae Thomas of rural Council Grove is a guardian angel of sorts for this seemingly increasing family heritage inquiry.
“I take gravestone pictures and record memorials to help these families through the Find A Grave website,” Thomas said.
She’s taken 55,940 tombstone photographs and added 24,051 memorials with them to the internet directory.
“I’ve always enjoyed going to cemeteries. They’re so serene and so peaceful,” Thomas insisted.
“I got interested in documenting gravesites when I realized people across the country like to know that information,” she said.
Many of the cemeteries in Morris County and several in Chase and Dickinson counties have been recorded by Thomas. A number of cemeteries in Marshall and Washington counties where Thomas grew up have also been documented on the website.
“I have more to do, but it is so interesting and enjoyable,” she added.
Find A Grave is a website that allows the public to search and add to an online database of cemetery records. It is owned by Ancestry.com.
The directory receives and uploads digital photographs of headstones from burial sites, taken by unpaid volunteers such as Thomas. “Find A Grave then posts the photo on its website,” Thomas said.
Jim Tipton of Salt Lake City, Utah, created the site in 1995 for his hobby visiting famous celebrities’ graves. Tipton expanded to include graves of non-celebrities to allow online visitors to pay respect to deceased relatives or friends.
“The website contains listings of cemeteries and graves from around the world,” Thomas said. “American cemeteries are organized by state and county.”
Individual grave records may contain dates and places of birth and death with a photograph of the cemetery and headstone. They might also include obituaries, biographical information, cemetery and plot information.
“Often family members will add cherished family photos to a memorial,” Thomas pointed out.
“Information is sometimes hard to find, especially for older cemeteries going back to the 1800s,” Thomas admitted.
“Fortunately, cemetery boards have some records, and the Morris County Historical Society is a good information source,” Thomas credited.
“Newspapers on microfilm can also provide for the diligent information seeker,” Thomas continued. “Volunteers often help each other by providing more details for previously created memorials.
“Local folks like Bob King and Larry Timm have been most helpful to me,” she acknowledged.
Bob King has also developed a special interest in tombstone renovation in area cemeteries. “Bob has done remarkable work making grave markers more legible as well as restoring and straightening the stones,” Thomas recognized.
“He’s been a great source of gravesite information in older parts of some cemeteries,” she added.
Personal enjoyment and gratification for Thomas’ service to so many is further enhanced when she receives expressions of appreciation.
“I don’t keep track, but many people say ‘thank you,’ and ‘how grateful’ they are for the information,” she said. “Some people just couldn’t find details on family members until it showed up on the Find A Grave website.
“Their gratitude continues to fuel my passion for this hobby. It’s such a good feeling knowing others so value what I enjoy doing,” Thomas said.
Eternal resting places for lost family and loved ones perhaps create a morbid feeling for certain ones. It’s quite the opposite for Mae Thomas.
“Cemeteries are a very pleasant quiet place,” she insisted. “I especially enjoy the spring and fall.
“Winters might seem a little bare. But when grass is green, the birds sing and the trees whisper in the wind, it’s beautifully tranquil,” Thomas declared.
Appreciation for taking photographs and an inherent “computer person,” Thomas reiterated, “I enjoy putting these hobbies altogether in recording gravesites.”
Modern technology has expanded her capabilities. “Certain Cemetery memorials now contain a Google Maps coordinates option,” Thomas said. “So I sometimes record the location of a gravestone using a Global Positioning System (GPS) app on my cell phone.”
That information can then be put on the corresponding memorial on the Find A Grave website.
Cemetery visitors around the area might remember seeing Mae Thomas doing tombstone research. “I usually had our Border Collie Sweet Sue with me, until she passed on a few years ago. A lot of people knew me by her,” Thomas noted.
With knee surgery in January, Thomas has been slowed some this spring. “It’s been rough to bend down, so I haven’t been out as much. I have plenty of work that I want to do,” she assured.
In recent years, definite changes have occurred in procedures involving remains of the deceased.
Many people choose cremations over traditional burial for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, it is a personal decision made by the individual or family members, according to officials of National Funeral Directors Association.
Younger generations often don’t visit cemeteries, despite still typically having ancestry interests.
“It’s true that burial is less common,” Thomas said. “With cremation, the urns are sometimes buried and grave markers put in place. Yet, in other situations, urns are kept in homes or on public display in memory and honor of the deceased.
“Other times ashes are spread over lands or property which were important to the deceased or their family,” she continued. “Either way, if urns are buried or cremains are scattered, the information is readily documented on the Find A Grave website.
“When remains are handled in another manner, memorials can be recorded so future generations can find that information,” Thomas explained.
With Memorial Day, May 27, cemeteries typically will have the largest visitor numbers of the year.
“I think many more people are looking up information on the Find A Grave website than ever before. It’s a great way to easily find information that a few years ago was not available,” Thomas summarized.