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Lives change in New England through cemetery service projects before President Ballard’s visit


Hundreds of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 17 stakes around the New England area of the United States participated in JustServe projects to prepare for President M. Russell Ballard’s visit to Topsfield, Massachusetts this past May.

They labored in cemeteries in six states — cleaning, raking, beautifying, adding flags and cataloging almost 60,000 headstones for BillionGraves

In the process, they kept the legacies of their ancestors alive and increased their faith and testimonies of the restored gospel. 

Video: Joseph Smith family’s foundation in Topsfield, Massachusetts

Karen Zeiner, JustServe specialist for the Boston, Massachusetts, area, said the large project was initiated by Area Seventy Elder Richard S. Hutchins of the North American Northeast Area, who was mindful of the visit of the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

“He thought with President Ballard coming to dedicate the Smith Family Memorial in Topsfield, this would be a wonderful way to honor him and serve in this way,” Zeiner said. “It was so good for us, and it was such a boost for us all to work together on something.”

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Members of the Foxboro Ward in the Blackstone Valley Massachusetts Stake document gravestones Woodlawn Cemetery in Attleboro, MA, on May 7, 2022.

Lori Bulloch, Blackstone Valley MA Stake communication director

JustServe.org is a website and app that connects volunteers with service projects and community organizations looking for help. Through the BillionGraves app, volunteers take GPS-linked photographs of gravestones that are uploaded and transcribed online for worldwide family history research. 

Each stake planned and picked a day to serve in a cemetery in their area, with many choosing Saturdays in April to gather and work together. All ages were involved. 

Christine Christensen, from the Cambridge Massachusetts Stake, said it was a "tender, even reverent experience" to document the information on headstones at each location. She said she thought a lot about about the individuals whose lives were marked and memorialized by each stone. 

“It was likewise an honor to place flags in gratitude for soldiers who gave their lives for freedom’s cause. Our clean-up project was much needed,” she said.

She also made the point to photograph the headstone of a dear neighbor and friend who had passed away: “I thought of his sweet and significant impact on our children — and many others as he was a high school coach and athletic director — with deep appreciation.”  

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Bishop Jerry C. Hsieh of the Kendall Square Ward (Mandarin speaking) in the Cambridge Massachusetts Stake and his son Maxwell photograph gravestones at the Boston Chinese Cemetery within the Mount Hope Cemetery in Boston, MA, on April 30, 2022.

Grace Roberts, Cambridge MA Stake JustServe specialist

Jeff Burdick served at one cemetery with his daughter and three of his grandchildren. “We noticed that the hillside where we were working was covered with small spring flowers — forget-me-nots. We felt our service for the deceased ancestors and early New England pioneers on that beautiful spring morning in April let each of them know that they had not been forgotten.”

Burdick was one of many people who worked alongside several generations of family members for the service project. The opportunity deepened their connections and relationships.

He said, “We noticed that many family members were buried together or next to one another, and this gave me the opportunity to discuss with my small grandchildren the importance and significance of families and how the family is part of God’s eternal plan.”

Zeiner said her husband cleaned and documented the headstones of his own ancestors in their family plot. “He was just so happy and so excited about it. And other people said they realized they could do this at any time — they could serve and go do these cemeteries. They caught on.” 

BillionGraves reported online that between March 15 and May 15, the following number of photos were uploaded and documented: 

Rhode Island – 5,998Connecticut – 12,670Massachusetts – 23,085New Hampshire – 11,449Vermont – 3,705Maine – 1,663Total: 58,570

Christensen noted that the cataloging of gravesites will allow researching family members to find ancestors and important information about them. But that wasn’t the only blessing for those involved.

“It also allowed us to establish and deepen relationships within the stake and also helped us establish relationships with gracious cemetery personnel who appreciated much needed help and who give much to our communities themselves,” Christensen said.

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Members of the Franklin 2nd Ward in the Blackstone Valley Massachusetts Stake participate in a service project at the Norfolk Cemetery in Norfolk, MA., on April 30, 2022.

Karen Wadley, Blackstone Valley MA Stake JustServe specialist

Zeiner said the coordination surrounding these service projects brought JustServe to life for many stakes who hadn’t been using it much before.

“They connected with their leaders in the stake to work together and let them know about JustServe, and they were talking about it in their stake councils,” Zeiner said. “I think it helped some of them understand what it is, it helped them make progress, so I was so happy.” 

She was honored to be able to see President Ballard during his visit and feel of his example of service throughout his life. 

President Ballard also felt a connection to his ancestors when he was in the Pine Grove Cemetery on May 14 to dedicate the monument, which memorializes Joseph Smith’s ancestors who lived, worked and worshipped in Massachusetts. 

“It is very special to be here and to be able to contemplate and appreciate the impact of my forebears — Hyrum and Joseph Smith,” he said that day.

Read more: The historical significance of Topsfield, Massachusetts, to Latter-day Saints, the community and President Ballard

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