ALBANY, N.Y. During excursions into the fields and forests of upstate New York, Donald Radz would sometimes flush out more than upland birds or other wildlife.
Brother Radz frequently came across old, weatherworn headstones. They were usually covered in moss and lichens, making their inscriptions barely legible. Yet to Brother Radz, a high priest in the Latham Ward of the Albany New York Stake, the stones represented a sacred segue to the past.
"Each headstone was likely the only record left on earth of the deceaseds' existence," he said.
His wife, Clare Radz, knew something herself of deteriorating headstones. Several years ago, Sister Radz visited the grave of her great-grandfather in a small plot at Hoag's Corner in rural Rensselaer County. It had been her first visit to the cemetery in many years, "and it was in bad shape." All that was found was one intact stone being used as a bridge across a ditch and bits and pieces of other headstones. Fortunately, Sister Radz had collected the vital information scratched into the stones during an earlier visit.
The couple share a firm testimony of family history. They realized the priceless data from many of the headstones in old Rensselaer County cemeteries would be lost forever if not quickly collected.
In 1991, Brother and Sister Radz formed a plan to record the vital data from headstones found in cemeteries in the 14 towns of rural Rensselaer County. Their goal was to preserve the data for those who would value the information for future genealogy and make good on their personal commitment to redeem the dead and proclaim the gospel.
Collecting data from the thousands of headstones throughout the county was a task larger than two people could handle. Fortunately, fellow members of the Latham Ward were enthused about the community service project, offering their time, energy and help.
"The project was a chance to share the gospel with a lot of people," Brother Radz added.
One goal was to provide each town with a copy of the headstone information found in their respective cemeteries. First, project volunteers secured maps of each town and, with the help of local historians, identified locations of known cemeteries. Notices were also placed in local newspapers soliciting information about abandoned cemeteries. The response was remarkable, Brother and Sister Radz said.
In 1993, Latham Ward members and a few folks from the community began copying heretofore unrecorded headstone inscriptions. The data was then carefully proofread and entered into a computer. In all, more than 100 people worked to complete the ambitious project.
Latham Ward member and Church convert Peter Brickman performed almost all the data entry, donating "countless hours" inputting each name and making corrections. The data was then compiled into books for each town and released.
In all, the project took seven years to complete. More than 600 cemeteries were surveyed, resulting in 93,274 names being recorded.
Along the way, Brother and Sister Radz and other volunteers were able to share their testimony about the gospel, eternal families and temple work with scores of their neighbors and town leaders in Rensselaer County during occasions when the books were presented.
Organizers say the project has already touched many lives. Some will be touched eternally.
"We know we were prompted and guided by the Holy Spirit throughout [the project]," Brother and Sister Radz noted. "Doors were continually opened which had been closed, prayers were answered."
Jason Swensen can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]