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Volunteers take millions of photos of gravestones, blessing people on both sides of the veil


Families, missionaries, young adults, youth groups and others are spending time in cemeteries, going from row to row and photographing each gravestone after signing up through JustServe.org.

In the three years since JustServe and BillionGraves partnered to offer volunteer opportunities, millions of gravestones have been photographed and the records then transcribed online.

JustServe volunteers took more than 4.5 million gravestone photos and transcribed the names and dates of those images in 2021 — meaning about 75% of the 6 million records gathered last year by BillionGraves volunteers were done by JustServe volunteers. 

BillionGraves special projects coordinator Cathy Wallace was made a JustServe national administrator to post these volunteer opportunities on the JustServe website and app. She also helps coordinate large groups of missionaries, ward members or youth groups who wish to serve in these ways.

Two young JustServe volunteers help clean gravestones to prepare them for photo documentation with BillionGraves in the Lexington, Kentucky, area on Oct. 10, 2020.

Two young JustServe volunteers help clean gravestones to prepare them for photo documentation with BillionGraves in the Lexington, Kentucky, area on Oct. 10, 2020.

Credit: BillionGraves

For example, at the end of April, JustServe volunteers in Vermont documented about two-thirds of the markers in the Green Mount Cemetery. Volunteers are now transcribing the images online.

Those in the Lexington Kentucky North Stake saw a gravestone project on JustServe during the pandemic, and 250 Church members and their neighbors of all ages participated in the event on Oct. 10, 2020.

Wallace said volunteers were asked to photograph the headstones and/or transcribe the names and dates on their computer from home. Over 16,000 headstones were photographed and then transcribed.

The Lexington Kentucky North Stake members also led another BillionGraves project that included three stakes on April 24, 2021, as they documented more than 32,000 military gravestones at three cemeteries.

Wallace said that in 2020, missionaries in the North Dakota Bismarck Mission documented over 150,000 headstones, completing more than 121 cemeteries in less than 12 weeks. Previous Church News stories have also reported on similar youth service projects in the Philippines in 2018, and another in Blythe, California, in 2015.

Wallace sees how these efforts impact volunteers, because a special spirit resides in cemeteries: “The dash on the gravestone between the birth date and the death date represents what happened when that person was on the earth,”  she said. “The volunteers who spend the time in cemeteries often ponder what’s happening with that dash in their own life.” 

Volunteers can typically take about 250 photos per hour, which is about one every 15 seconds. The BillionGraves app automatically marks each gravestone with a GPS location, plotting it in the cemetery map.

The GPS-marked cemetery maps not only allow families to find their ancestor’s gravestones, but they also allow future volunteers to see exactly what has already been photographed, said Wallace. And the GPS location is a crucial tool when documenting private family burial plots or smaller cemeteries on private land. 

Missionaries in the North Dakota Bismarck Mission take pictures of gravestones on one of their service days. The missionaries used the BillionGraves app to document more than 150,000 headstones during the year 2020.

Missionaries in the North Dakota Bismarck Mission take pictures of gravestones on one of their service days. The missionaries used the BillionGraves app to document more than 150,000 headstones during the year 2020.

Credit: BillionGraves

The gravestone records can be easily added from BillionGraves to FamilySearch, which helps other relatives find the records, too, and prepare family names to take to the temple. “These projects are blessing people all around the world and both sides of the veil. It helps to gather Israel,” Wallace said. 

The BillionGraves and JustServe partnership is now in eight countries and territories — the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Australia, U.K. and Northern Ireland — with New Zealand and Chile being added this summer.

“Each person deserves to have their legacy,” said Wallace. “As we come back to who our ancestors are, we come to understand ourselves better. And as we understand ourselves better, it creates stronger families, and stronger families create better communities, and stronger communities create a better world.”

Those planning a Church service activity documenting grave stones can search JustServe for “BillionGraves,” or find more information on planning and logistics through this BillionGraves blog post.

A previous version of this article identified members of the Lexington Kentucky Stake participating in BillionGraves projects. They are from the Lexington Kentucky North Stake.

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