03 August 2012

Find A Grave

UPDATE 30 Sep 2013: Find A Grave has been sold to Ancestry.com. You can find details here.

Find A Grave is a website dedicated to preserving cemeteries. It can also be a treasure trove of genealogical information. While this site is great for genealogists and you can link family and possibly connect with family it is not a site for building trees. The main purpose of the site is to preserve headstones for future generations and memorialize those who have passed. Jim Tipton, the site's creator, started Find A Grave out of his hobby of visiting the graves of famous people. Over the last 12 years the site has evolved to what it is today. For that Jim, we thank you!
To give you an idea of its size, as of July 2, 2012 there were over 77.5 million US memorials. That's 4.5 million more than there were on April 1, 2012. Here's a small, random sampling of their memorial numbers outside of the US:

 Canada       995,476                             
 France        756,778                             
 England      604,454                                
 Australia     427,956                            
 Germany     200,431
 India            63,591
 Ireland         53,522
 Philippines    51,502
 Finland         44,140
 Greece          25,675
 Poland           17,954
 Russian Fed.  17,891
 Tunisia          16,045
 Sweden         15,192
 Israel            14,559
 Wales            12,658
 Libya               8,005
 Czech Rep.       7,087
 Kenya              7,963
 Hungary          6,232
 Malaysia          5,344
 Japan              3,791
 Mexico             3,132
 Denmark         2,997
 Lithuania         2,704
 Switzerland      2,005
 Ghana             1,790
 Romania          1,577
 Barbados         1,141
 Zimbabwe          922

While there are memorials for everyone from George Washington to Lucille Ball to my great-grandfather it is a site that will forever be in progress. Volunteers are constantly adding new memorials and anyone can volunteer. Some volunteers "mow the rows" at their local cemetery, taking photos row by row. Others work at entering memorials from transcriptions of cemeteries found at a library or done by their local genealogical or historical society. Others may only respond to photo requests or might enter memorials based on obituaries in newspapers. Because of the variety of ways people volunteer memorials have different levels of information. Someone who mows the rows or enters from a transcription may only enter information found on the headstone while those that enter memorials from obituaries probably have full birth/death dates and places and may even include transcriptions of those obituaries.
Ancestry.com recently added an index of the Find A Grave website to its collections. I don't know how often the index will be updated but considering how often memorials are added to Find A Grave (4.5 million in 3 months!!!) I hope some tips for using the site will be useful to you. 

AFTER THE JUMP: Using Find A Grave for genealogy
                             Becoming a Find A Grave volunteer

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The search engine on this site is a little quirky. Any surname you search will be exact. Searches with * or ? variants will not work. If you have a surname that can be spelled multiple ways you'll need to search each one separately or use the "partial name search" option.
Enter the smallest amount of information first. If the number of search results warrant it you can use your browser's "go back a page" option and add a detail. Try starting with a surname and a year or surname and a state. The first name search will automatically search a partial name so if you don't know whether the memorial would be for Charles or Charlie you can enter 'Charl' and get both in the results. Of course the stone may only have initials. Entering anything in the first or middle name will only return results with that information or more. Here are a couple of examples.
Searching John William Smith will NOT return results for: 
1) J. Smith
2) J. W. Smith
3) John W. Smith
4) John Smith
Searching for J W Smith will give you memorials that have ALL of the following:
1) first name starting with J or with just an initial J
2) middle name starting with W or just an initial W
3) last name of Smith
Once you've found an ancestor they may have family attached so you can click to their memorials. If no family is attached click on the name of the cemetery. On the cemetery page you can search the surname and see if any other family is buried in the cemetery. If it's a small cemetery there may not be a search box but you'll be able to click on the "view all interments" and scroll through the entire cemetery. The search box on a cemetery page will automatically do a partial name search so you can search just entering one letter.
If you already know the name of the cemetery you can use the cemetery search. Again, it's quirky. If you can't remember the first word in the name of the cemetery you won't be able to find it with the cemetery search. If you know only know that the cemetery is called "something Memorial Gardens" try browsing by county


Since some memorials have little information and you may want to add a few things. Anyone can add photos to a memorial. There is a limit of 5 photos so if you add photos and none are of the headstone be sure to leave one space for that to be added later. The number of photos can be increased if you sponsor a memorial. For $5 you can permanently remove ads from the memorial page and increase the number of photos to 20. For other information (name, dates, places, a bio, etc.) click the "edit" tab on the memorial. If you want to connect family include names and memorial numbers for those to be connected. The options for making connections are 'father', 'mother' and 'spouse'. Be sure to keep a copy of the message you send. The message goes to the person who created the memorial. If the additions/corrections aren't made within 30 days you can send the message to edit(at)findagrave(dot)com. If you think about bypassing the 30 days process think about the numbers listed before the jump. And here's another one, 70,000. Find A Grave gets 70,000 visitors daily. The reason the site has been successful thus far is because of the work the volunteers do. Besides, it's Jim's site and being a part of it means playing by his rules. There is a way to make suggestions about the site but I'll go over that later.
Even though Find A Grave is not a site for building family trees there is a way to keep your family together on the site, besides making the father/mother/spouse connections. Once you create an account on Find A Grave you can create virtual cemeteries. You can have one large cemetery or keep each branch of your tree in a different virtual cemetery. You can even create a cemetery based on any topic you like, i.e. historic players from your favorite baseball team. Here's one that Jim Tipton created for his favorite authors. This one is for one branch of my family tree.
Copyright for photos on Find A Grave is held by each volunteer photographer. To post those photos anywhere else you need to get permission. Some will give blanket permission on their profile page but if nothing is stated there then send them a message. Be aware that the photographer may not be the same person that created the memorial so click on the username under the photo and not the "created by" name.
I've seen a number of complaints from people who don't know how the site works. "I thought it was free but it's just a scam to get you to sign up for Ancestry.com/Archives.com" or "I know they're buried in that cemetery but they aren't there". First, Find A Grave IS free. If there are zero search results you will get an advertisement for a website that may help you locate them. Second, learn how to search the site. If you still can't find them and you know where they are buried then create a memorial for them. Maybe there isn't an active volunteer in that area. Maybe the grave is unmarked. This site will always be a work in progress. That's part of the fun :-)


It's a great feeling when you get a note saying, "Thanks for finding my family. Now we can pay our respects in person the next time we're in town." Just taking a photo of a grave that has a photo on it is exciting. I always think, "This could be the first photo her family has ever seen of her!"
Here are some basics you'll need to know if you want to volunteer.
1) Creating memorials means that you agree to make updates submitted through the edit tab on those memorials. Of course life can sometimes get in the way which is why there's a back-up plan using the 'edit' email address I gave earlier.
2) Before creating a memorial search the cemetery to see if that person is already listed. Duplicates are not allowed. When they are found duplicates will either be deleted or merged and the memorial will be given to the person that created the earlier memorial.
3) Creating memorials when the place of interment is not known is frowned upon. From the FAQ: "Location of body unknown should be used for recent deaths where the disposition is not currently known. Final disposition should be determined and updated within 30 days."
4) You can sign up to be a photo volunteer. When someone requests a photo in your area you will get an email. The email goes out to several volunteers in the area so you don't need to reply if you are unable to take the photo.
5) No one is required to be a photo volunteer to participate on the site. It's not even required if you want to fill photo requests. Just go to the cemetery page for a cemetery in your area and look under "Links" for photo requests.


Everyone is free to leave virtual flowers or tokens on any memorial. There is a set of flowers available to everyone but you can also create your own or copy flowers/tokens that other members use to your scrapbook. If you click on a token the page that appears will have two options: 1) Add this to my scrapbook 2) Report abuse. Saving it to your scrapbook means you will be able to place it on memorials in the future.
What is considered abuse?
1) Vulgar language.
2) Political statements.
3) Anything denigrating the memory of the person in the memorial.
4) Anything glorifying the manner of death.
5) Biographical information. If you have a biographical info submit it using the edit tab.
    Inappropriate: Taught English at Monroe H.S. from 1962-1986
    Appropriate: For my favorite English teacher   
You can leave one flower/token per day on a memorial.


The Find A Grave discussion boards are a separate site. You'll need to create a separate username and password if you want to use them but they are free. There are boards for administrative issues, questions/complaints/suggestions regarding the main site, multiple genealogy boards, and social boards. 
The discussion boards would be the appropriate place to make a suggestion. Other Find A Grave volunteers can chime in and you'll find out the pros and cons to your suggestion. Administrators monitor the boards and a number of changes to the site have come about because they were hot topics on the discussion boards.
Below is a link to the Find A Grave FAQ page which answers just about any question you might have about the site. The rules do change occasionally so it's helpful to read through some of the basics once a year. There's also a thread on the discussion board that will point out the specific changes. 
Hope this was helpful and be sure to check in Tuesday for another crazy tree!


  1. What a great article! Thanks -- you covered it all concisely and correctly! I have shared it with my little home-grown genealogy group.

  2. One can do a partial search on surnames on FindAGrave, as long as at least two letters are entered by clicking the "Do partial name search on surname" box just below the surname box. So, entering 'James W Sm' would return James W Smack, James W Small, James W Smallwood, James W Smarr . . . and so on, all the way up to (and beyond) James W Smith. No wildcard symbols needed.

    Just love your website!