Don Nichols, Jr. Photography by Levi Mandel, Illustrations by Ariel Davis

How Ancestry.com’s Find A Grave Encourages Bad Actors and Bad Data

By gamifying memorials, FindAGrave.com became a Wild West for chronicling the dead

Katie Reid
Published in
20 min readAug 5, 2019

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MyMy grandma died in April of 2004 at the age of 85, and what remains of her today are vestiges of a life lived entirely offline — the typewritten letters she’d mail to me six or seven times a year; the gold wedding ring I wore when I married my husband; the oak grandfather clock that chimes every quarter hour in my parents’ living room in Maryland.

In death, though, my grandma is more online than ever. A few months ago, my sister stumbled across a page created for my grandmother on the website FindAGrave.com. It wasn’t immediately clear what she’d uncovered. A death profile of some sort, the postmortem equivalent of a page on Facebook? Some of the details listed were familiar to me — the places of her birth and death, her husband’s name. Others were a revelation — her wedding anniversary, her mother’s maiden name, the year her sister was born. Four photos adorned the page: two of her headstone, and two of her as a child, the latter of which my mom can’t recall ever seeing before.

The information on my grandmother’s page was accurate, but I had no idea where it had come from. Each Find A Grave memorial links to the user who created it, so I started an account and sent a message to “Don,” who was apparently responsible for my grandma’s digital afterlife.

Within minutes, I received two responses. The first was from Find A Grave, notifying me that management of my grandma’s memorial had been transferred to me; the second was a message from Don:

Hello,

Since I am not related, I am transferring this memorial to your care. As I come across various obits I post them on Find A Grave. Enjoy.

I wasn’t quite sure that I would “enjoy” caring for my grandmother’s online grave, but I wrote back to Don regardless. He agreed to speak over the phone.

Find A Grave, as I would soon learn, is a website that documents the final resting place of millions of people all over the world. With 180 million entries, it is the largest gravesite collection on the internet. Owned by genealogy giant Ancestry.com, Find A Grave differs…

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