Listen to this story

--:--

--:--

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

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 in one major way from the company’s other sites: it seems to be composed entirely of user-generated material. Though the site has become a popular resource among genealogists and family historians, Ancestry claims no legal responsibility for the accuracy of Find A Grave’s information. Instead, much of the content creation and moderation work is left to a sprawling community of volunteers. It’s a Wikipedia of the dead, albeit with far fewer rules.

Call them the digital undertakers — a motley crew of users who have made a competition out of racking up as many memorials as possible.

From that community has emerged a strange and unlikely group of contributors who have made an obsessive hobby out of personally documenting the deaths of thousands, even millions, of total strangers.

Call them the digital undertakers — a motley crew of Find A Grave superusers who have made a competition out of racking up as many memorials as possible. Some of the users I spoke with race to create memorials for the deceased within hours of their death, while others embark on international scavenger hunts to find and photograph graveyards not yet documented, scrape data from funeral home websites, or even post memorials for individuals not yet deceased. Still others have stepped into Find A Grave’s moderation void, taking it on themselves to ensure that members are using the site according to their own standards — and meting out consequences to those who aren’t. These volunteers operate with little corporate oversight or guidance in deciding how our dead ones will be documented. Online, the land of the dead can feel like the Wild West.

The user who created my grandmother’s profile isn’t as prolific as the most obsessive undertakers. In his 16 years on Find A Grave, Don Nichols, Jr. has created a mere 114,000 memorials, a figure that pales in comparison to the work of one Florida man I spoke with who has single-handedly documented the death of over 3 million people on the platform.

One Florida man I spoke with who has single-handedly documented the death of over 3 million people on the platform.

Don lives in Nebraska, just as my grandma did for most of her life. He first started using Find A Grave to trace some of his own family history. He’s been an active user ever since, adding new memorials to the site, checking existing ones for accuracy, and responding to questions and requests from other users. Within minutes of talking to Don, I discovered that he is a far better caretaker on Find A Grave than I could ever hope to be. He’s humble too.

“I guess if anything it’s kind of like a hobby,” he told me over the phone. “I think you’ll find out it’s kind of addicting, if you get into it enough.”

EEarlier this year, a distraught parent posted on Complaints Board, a third-party review site, that they’d made a horrifying discovery: their six-year-old daughter’s headstone had been photographed and posted on Find A Grave without their knowledge.

“Find a grave.com photographed my 6 year old daughter’s headstone and put it online,” wrote the user. “I was aghast when it popped up on my monitor. I have contacted the prosecutor and state police. The prosecutor says that I can file a civil complaint about this infringement against the guy who took and posted the picture.”

When Jim Tipton launched Find A Grave in 1995, he didn’t much care where our loved ones were buried. A self-described “nerdy insomniac” in Utah, Tipton set out to combine two of his hobbies by building a website from scratch to document all of the celebrity graves he’d visited: Malcom X in New York, Al Capone in Illinois, Marilyn Monroe in Los Angeles.

“Find a grave.com photographed my 6 year old daughter’s headstone and put it online.”

The site had a basic setup. You could search for graves by name, location, or “claim to fame.” The results would yield a handful of details — death date, a short description of what the person was known for, burial location — and a photo or two of the gravestone.

Soon enough, Tipton started getting requests to add other famous graves: Elvis, James Dean, JFK. As requests snowballed, Find A Grave began accepting more marginally famous people. Eventually, Tipton removed the fame requirement and by April of 2000, Find A Grave had become host to the memorials of 2.5 million celebrities and ordinary people.

“I realized people kind of wanted this online experience,” Tipton told me. “More and more stuff was moving online and that included kind of mourning for some people…. And certainly family research was a huge component of it.”

By the early 2000s, Find A Grave found itself at the center of an industry exploding in popularity: genealogy. Genealogists and family historians found the unrivaled number of cemetery records on Find A Grave invaluable. So it made sense when Ancestry, the online giant that runs a network of genealogy and historical record websites, bought Find A Grave in 2013. Aside from a 2017 website redesign, the site didn’t change much, and Find A Grave works much like it did when it was founded almost 25 years ago.

“The goal really is to document and make available online final disposition information about people… and then the data that’s around that: the birth date, death date, locations — you know basic birth, death information,” says Peter Drinkwater, the Director of Product Management for Find A Grave at Ancestry.

Don Nichols, Jr. in his Nebraska home.

Find A Grave isn’t the only company operating in this space, but it is the oldest, largest, and most established gravesite collection on the web. In an interview, Ancestry claimed that Find A Grave was the second most-trafficked genealogy website in the world — second only to Ancestry itself. Research suggests that ranking is inflated, and many might question classifying Find A Grave as a genealogy site to begin with. Analytics site Similar Web estimates Find A Grave saw an average of 15.5 million visitors over the last six months, though Ancestry would not confirm that number. The site generates revenue through ads, though the company wouldn’t disclose earnings. Once users sign up, they can immediately start contributing, putting in their own memorials, or filling photo requests for existing memorials. They can even make a one-time $5 “donation” to the company to get ads removed from a particular memorial forever.

Like Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat, Find A Grave is an open platform and, as such, is faced with the perpetual problem of moderation. While these platforms have created massive moderation efforts to combat disinformation and harassment — with mixed levels of success — Find A Grave seems to be taking a more hands-off approach.

Though some users I spoke with reported bad actors being kicked off, the same individuals often rejoin the platform under different usernames.

Before their acquisition by Ancestry, the site had no formal terms of service or guidelines, but instead relied on an FAQ to guide users. Today the site has both Terms of Service, which deny legal responsibility for any misrepresentations of data, and Community Rules that lay out prohibited behaviors. A “support staff,” helps to manage memorials that don’t have owners and moderate issues between users, but Ancestry declined to provide specifics, including the number of moderators they employ.

In an email, a company representative said:

“Find A Grave’s mission is to help people from all over the world work together to find, record and present final disposition information as a virtual memorial experience. Over the past 6 years, we have created and nurtured a respectful and supportive community. We do also have a process and policy for those who do not comply with our guidelines including warnings and if necessary, a request to leave the community.”

Though some users I spoke with reported bad actors being kicked off, the same individuals often rejoin the platform under different usernames. Drinkwater indicated that Find A Grave depends on users to report bad behavior, and that the site is largely reactive in its moderation efforts.

Find A Grave receives its fair share of complaints. For one, not everyone is happy to discover their loved ones on the site, like that bereaved parent who posted their complaint earlier this year. Though photographing graves in public cemeteries isn’t illegal, Drinkwater did note that Find A Grave “regularly takes down memorials because family members are upset by the fact that it’s up there.”

Tipton encountered this problem in the early days of Find a Grave, and says he understands why some people would react negatively, even with horror, to stumbling across pages dedicated to their loved ones. “But we also kind of ended up having to take the approach of like, if they’re out there in a cemetery, anyone who wants can stroll through that public cemetery,” he said. “It’s just kind of information.”

Adolf Hitler, Ted Bundy, and Adam Lanza’s memorials have notices indicating that the option to lay virtual flowers has been disabled “because it was consistently being misused.”

Then there’s the question of who deserves a digital tombstone. If Find A Grave began as the place where, according to its tagline, “everybody who was anybody is buried,” now it’s just the place where everybody is buried — “good, bad, or ugly,” as Don put it. Adolf Hitler and the serial killer Ted Bundy have memorials on Find a Grave. So does the Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza. All three memorials have notices indicating that the option to lay virtual flowers has been disabled “because it was consistently being misused.”

Like Reddit or Wikipedia, Find A Grave has spawned a massive volunteer community to manage and feed the site. Contributors on Find A Grave have a number of ways to participate: walking cemeteries out in the real world to take photos of gravestones, creating memorials with birth and death information, filling photo requests from other users, or laying virtual flowers at virtual graves. Find A Grave declined to say how many active users it has today, but Tipton says the site had 1.4 million members when Ancestry purchased it in 2013.

The vast majority of contributors on Find A Grave are likely motivated by the best of intentions — to help others. “They want to help other people and they want to provide a service and they feel like this is something that can last, that could be of benefit to a lot of people,” says Drinkwater.

Within that community, however, there has emerged a small but intense group of users motivated by something rather mortal: competition. Shortly after Tipton opened the door to non-famous graves, he added another feature to Find A Grave: a display that indicated the top 20 contributors and their stats. Tipton said that including the numbers was easy, since he could already see everyone’s stats as the site creator. A numbers guy himself, he figured adding them would keep users coming back to the site.

But the public leaderboard also created and fueled an unlikely micro-community of users in pursuit of adding, maintaining, or photographing the most graves on the site. “It absolutely did add a competitive element, which was kind of a double-edged sword. I didn’t see that coming,” said Tipton. “But it did mean that people added more information because they got competitive with each other, which is great for the growth of the site.”

Though the site’s 2017 redesign eliminated the leaderboard, an archived page from 2016 indicates that most of the top contributors had added over 200,000 memorials each. Four had over a million each.

The top contributors are no longer displayed on the site’s homepage, but stats can still be found on each user’s profile. The contest is ongoing today, and many of the most active Find A Grave users still know who’s on top. These are the digital undertakers.

TThere are two things to know about John Svadbik of Miami, Florida:

First, he is the top contributor on Find A Grave with over 3.2 million memorials; second, his father loved puzzles.

“He’d lay them on the kitchen table, you know like 1500 pieces, and he would take maybe a week to do it,” said Svadbik over the phone. He’d finish the puzzles, look at them in satisfaction, and put them back in the box. “And then it’s worthless,” says Svadbik.

John says he’s taken an interest in a far more lasting puzzle: chronicling the dead.

It was John’s passion for ancestry that brought him to Find A Grave about seven years ago, but it’s the competition he found there that hooked him. “I wanted to get the most,” said John. “I had a lot of fun doing it.”

How do you find 3 million dead people to memorialize? Sometimes, John would physically walk through cemeteries and photograph each gravestone. Then, once he got home, he’d upload thousands of pictures at once. Sometimes he’d take an easier approach: he’d search for available cemetery databases online and upload them to Find A Grave in bulk. John estimated that sometimes he spent 5 hours a day contributing to Find A Grave.

He’d search for available cemetery databases online and upload them to Find A Grave in bulk. John estimated that sometimes he spent 5 hours a day contributing to Find A Grave.

In order for a memorial to count towards his total, a user only needs to upload one element of a digital gravestone — a photograph, say, or a name. John would take a picture of a gravestone and upload it, while someone else might transcribe the information listed on the stone, and another user might reach out to get the memorial linked to a spouse or a sibling. As the first poster, John is considered the creator and owner of the memorial.

Because of his output, John is now responsible for the upkeep of millions of digital graves. It can be draining. John gets around 100 requests a week. Some are simple — a change in dates, adding a link to a family member. Other changes are more involved — writing a bio, transferring ownership, and sometimes even doing more research.

John recently began a new property management business, and he told me that he doesn’t have the bandwidth to fact check the edits he gets. “I just accept 100 [requests] at a time — I don’t know what’s right and what’s correct and what’s not,” he said. He doesn’t seem overly concerned about inaccuracies. “I think most people… they’re not in there to muddy things up or make it unclear. They want accuracy.”

John is happy to boast of his top contributor status on his Find A Grave profile, and says it’s something he feels unequivocally good about, and not just because he’s “winning.”

“It was competition but now it’s not a competition — it’s cooperation and helping other people,” he says. “And then I guess the reward was people would send me emails thanking me, ‘Oh I’ve been looking for this person, my ancestor, and thanks for doing that.’ So that’s kind of nice.”

Strangers racing to collect the graves of our friends and family — even with good intentions — is weird, at best. Other times, it can stir up trouble.

TThe day after Amy Johnson Crow’s father-in-law died in 2016, she went to Find A Grave to add his memorial. A professional genealogist, Johnson Crow had been familiar with the site for years — she’d even worked for Ancestry for a short time. Knowing how quickly some Find A Grave members moved, she wanted to add her father-in-law’s memorial before anyone else had a chance.

To her utter surprise, his digital grave was already live. His obituary hadn’t been published in the paper. They hadn’t buried him. They had yet to even notify some extended family members. She was shocked.

“Here I am, somebody who had worked for Ancestry, I’m a longtime Find A Grave user, I’m a longtime Find A Grave contributor,” she said. “And even I wasn’t fast enough to create his memorial.”

Johnson Crow reached out to the contributor responsible for the memorial. It was a woman who kept a close eye on the town’s funeral home websites. She had seen his obituary there and posted it immediately — she told Johnson Crow she was trying to beat another fast-moving local digital undertaker who, she believes, does shoddy work. Although the memorial was eventually transferred to Johnson Crow, the experience was still painful for her. “It was a punch in the gut,” she said. “The one thing that I felt that I could do for the family, something unique that I could do to help memorialize him, I couldn’t do.”

To her utter surprise, his digital grave was already live. His obituary hadn’t been published in the paper. They hadn’t buried him. They had yet to even notify some extended family members.

Find a Grave members competing for memorials go to extreme lengths to rack up their stats. One fairly common practice is creating memorials for persons who are still living. Referred to as “pre-need” memorials, they are often created for the living spouse of someone who has died. Another tactic includes uploading spreadsheets from mortuaries or cemeteries — just like John Svadbik does — allowing users to enter 500 or more memorials at a time. These memorials often contain little more than a name and a death date, but they still count towards a user’s totals.

Other digital undertakers are intensely focused on how the data for memorials is collected and presented, developing their own strict moderation guidelines. When users reach out with edits or transfer requests, these undertakers can be demanding, territorial, and even hostile.

Take 81-year-old Find A Grave user RosalieAnn from southern Maryland, who requested I not use her last name. Like Don, she has been on Find A Grave for over 16 years, during which time she has created over 25,000 memorials. Even more impressive is how many physical graves she’s photographed: 32,706, as of mid-July. (Many of these photos were added to existing memorials.) She has taken trips to exotic locations like St. Croix, St. Barthélemy, and Antigua for the sole purpose of documenting remote cemeteries that aren’t on Find A Grave yet — an ambitious undertaking, considering she uses a mobility scooter. RosalieAnn says she is committed to Find A Grave’s mission, and she has little patience for those who use the site incorrectly. She takes particular umbrage at members who add memorials with no burial information to complete their family tree.

“Find A Grave is a place to record where people are buried or what happened to their physical body after they died,” she said. “If you can’t do that, then you don’t enter the memorial, even though you might really, really want to because it links up the rest of your family.”

RosalieAnn, a constant presence of the site’s forums, told me she’s “deeply suspicious” of people who suggest edits without satisfactory factual basis and she is discriminating about the edit requests she accepts. She won’t link children to parents, for example, unless there are plot deeds or other documentation about their burial location — even when it’s a family member making the request. In one case, she even had a memorial removed because a woman badgered her to link it to another with no burial information. The woman insisted she knew the burial place — a private farm, with no marker — but she had no proof.

She has taken trips to exotic locations like St. Croix, St. Barthélemy, and Antigua for the sole purpose of documenting remote cemeteries that aren’t on Find A Grave yet — an ambitious undertaking, considering she uses a mobility scooter.

“There was no earthly documentation for the fact that that person was buried there,” said RosalieAnn. “All we knew is that the person had died and that was it.” And in her book, that wasn’t good enough.

I asked her if it was a family member who made the edit request.

“Probably,” she said.

There can be lots of little dust-ups like this among Find A Grave users — contributors refusing to transfer memorials or make edits, or deleting memorials out of revenge. RosalieAnn says that her edit requests to one digital undertaker’s memorials made him so furious, he deleted the entries entirely. Before deleting the memorials, RosalieAnn said, he changed his username to “Karma.”

“These are people who are so passionate about this and so I think people feel a real sense of ownership because they’ve contributed so much, because they’ve been around for so long,” said Ancestry’s Drinkwater. “The vast majority of the people we work with are super nice…There are some people who are not, right? I mean there are some people who you just have to kind of say, ‘Hey we need you not to do that anymore.’”

Drinkwater points to the site’s Community Rules, linked in the Terms of Service, that outline punishment for egregious behavior. The list is not comprehensive, but details some of the activity that can get a user banned from Find A Grave, including posting false information, harassing other users or employees, or abusing Find A Grave tools like the edit request and messaging features.

DDon Nichols, Jr., the man who created my grandmother’s memorial, goes about his work on Find A Grave the only way he knows how: systematically. Each day, before going to the gym “at a healthy 2:30 a.m.,” Don logs on to Find A Grave. First, he answers his messages — he gets at least 10 new messages daily from users suggesting edits or requesting transfers. Then, he goes through the obituaries of several local papers and adds any memorials that aren’t already up. Later in the day, he’ll go through Find A Grave cemeteries and search for any incomplete memorials, referencing the Social Security Death Index — a database of death records for anyone who died after the government began issuing social security numbers in 1936 — to fill in missing birth or death dates and sending any edits to the user who maintains it.

“I don’t care about the numbers,” Don told me a few minutes into our first conversation. “It’s just helping people out.”

Don was easy to talk to and, though his numbers are impressive, I believed him when he said he wasn’t in it just for the competition. After all, he’d transferred my grandma’s memorial without my even asking.

“Other Find A Gravers have told me that we all have a ‘disease’ with our perceived ‘obsession’ with Find A Grave.”

A marine vet and retired fire chief, Don has always been a history buff, and he’d dabbled in genealogy when he was still in the Omaha Fire Department. Before he ever went online, Don set out to record the birth and death dates of everyone who had ever served in the fire department. He gathered data the best way he knew how: walking dozens of cemeteries in Omaha.

In retirement he began researching his own family history. That’s how he discovered Find A Grave, which helped him trace his family back to the mid 1800s in Poland. As an only child whose parents had died young, building a detailed family tree was meaningful to him. “So many people helped me out with my family history, people that I never met,” Don said. He’s committed to paying it forward on Find A Grave.

Don told me his family is “kind of aware” of his involvement with Find A Grave, but not all that interested. He seems both cognizant of and comfortable with the strangeness of a hobby that involves cataloguing the final resting places of tens of thousands of people he’s never met.

“Other Find A Gravers have told me that we all have a ‘disease’ with our perceived ‘obsession’ with Find A Grave,” Don later wrote me in an email. But he noted that everything that had led him to the site — his love of history, his interest in his family roots, his project with the fire department — were all normal on their own. Find A Grave just managed to fit naturally into Don’s regular routine.

Don seems to embody the purest example of what Find A Grave can be: good-natured, helpful, thorough — and when family members reach out to him — trusting. “You know, the person wouldn’t have contacted me if it wouldn’t have been important to them,” he said.

Don still regularly spends four or five hours a day on the site, now occupying himself with a new task: choosing a Find A Grave cemetery and putting virtual flowers at every single grave. To date, he has laid virtual flowers at nearly 188,000 Find A Grave memorials.

I was touched by this peculiar act of kindness, though it sounds almost as tedious as it does absurd. Don disagreed. “They were here on earth for some reason, although I don’t know who the heck most of them are or anything like that,” Don told me. “No matter what their history was, they left some little mark here in life and they shouldn’t just be forgotten. You can’t just throw lives away.”

MyMy grandmother is buried in David City Cemetery in Butler County, Nebraska. I’m not sure when I last visited her physical grave — probably not since she was buried there 15 years ago. It’s halfway across the country and traveling there from Baltimore isn’t easy. My recollections of her are sweet and specific — the smell of cherry almond hand soap, hearing her gentle, shaky voice over the phone, playing cards after dinner in her tiny apartment. But over time, memories of her have been fading, their edges softening with each passing year.

Though the digital undertakers of Find A Grave may operate haphazardly and without the oversight we’d expect on a platform of its size, they are also doing important work: bringing millions of our ancestors into a more accessible venue. After all, the internet may be the closest thing we have to earthly eternity.

Since inheriting my grandmother’s virtual grave, I’ve visited her there almost daily. Find A Grave, of all things, returned her to my consciousness as she hadn’t been in years. She is back in my world in a way that’s almost as real as the physical keepsakes we have of her; maybe, by modern standards, even more real: she’s online.

Writer based in Baltimore, MD

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store