Menu
In the News

Project hopes to document tens of thousands of headstones in Midwest U.S.

Rescuing Our Roots includes eight stakes and one mission from Iowa, Missouri and Illinois. JustServe, BillionGraves and FamilySearch are partnering in the effort

IMG_20220908_WA0006.jpg

Arturo Miranda and his daughter, Evelyn, from the Cedar Rapids Iowa Stake take pictures of headstones at a cemetery in Waterloo, Iowa, on Sept. 8, 2022, as part of the Rescuing Our Roots project.

Emily Miranda


This month, volunteers from around the Midwestern U.S. are taking part in a massive effort to document pre-1880 gravestones.

Some began already, others will work this weekend to mark the National Day of Service, and others will labor throughout the month.

The project, called Rescuing Our Roots, includes as partners The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BillionGraves, JustServe, FamilySearch and The History Center of Iowa.

Iowa has an estimated 200,000 pre-1880 gravestones. But in many states, vital records were not kept until the late 1800s or early 1900s. That means a gravestone may be someone’s only record left on earth.

IMG_8357.jpeg

Annie Weaver from the Cedar Rapids Iowa Stake takes pictures of headstones at a cemetery in Waterloo, Iowa, on Sept. 8, 2022, as part of the Rescuing Our Roots project.

Julianne Weaver

Volunteers can find a cemetery through JustServe.org or the JustServe app. Then they clean each headstone, take a photo of it, upload the photo using the BillionGraves app and transcribe the record. 

Those records will be shared with FamilySearch, said Larry Telford, FamilySearch program manager, allowing people to add new persons to the FamilySearch Tree or supplement information for existing persons in the tree. 

“The people of these stakes can have an end-to-end experience of capturing valuable gravestone information, uploading that information, adding people to the tree and perhaps taking a name to the temple of those to whom they may be related,” said Telford, who traveled from Salt Lake City to Iowa to participate in some of the cemetery work in the Waterloo–Cedar Falls area this weekend. 

How it began

Cedar Rapids Iowa Stake President Joseph Miller initiated the project, which has grown to include stakes in Des Moines, Sioux City and Mount Pisgah, Iowa; Cape Girardeau and Columbia, Missouri; Nauvoo and Peoria, Illinois; and the Iowa Iowa City Mission. 

President Miller said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they couldn’t meet in person nor attend the temple, many in his stake turned to family history research to connect with their ancestors and the blessings of the temple.

IMG_8342.jpeg

Annie Weaver and Camille Miranda of the Cedar Rapids Iowa Stake take a photo of a headstone in Waterloo, Iowa, on Sept. 8, 2022, as part of the Rescuing our Roots project.

Julianne Weaver

Then in August 2020, hurricane-force winds blew across Iowa, toppling trees and destroying homes. Members in Helping Hands shirts responded in force to help their neighbors clean up. 

“We came out with a deeper appreciation for both our ancestors and for our communities and our neighbors,” President Miller said. “We saw this accelerated temple building, and it hit us powerfully that the most important thing we could do was to prepare our communities and ancestors for blessings of the temple.”

The Rescuing Our Roots project seemed like the perfect way to do it. Word spread through coordinating councils and to community organizations and municipal leaders. 

“This concept of connecting with our past and preserving our legacy through a project like this is really resonating with people,” President Miller said.

How to get involved

Volunteers outside the Midwest U.S. can also look at JustServe.org or the JustServe app to find cemeteries near them. President Miller said BillionGraves also needs help finding forgotten cemeteries — like small family plots or private cemeteries where developments have been built around them. 

Those who cannot go in person to a cemetery can transcribe records for this project or any project on BillionGraves.com.

After those records get shared with FamilySearch, members will engage in tree mapping on FamilySearch and prepare names to take to the temple. 

Volunteers can also get involved in 2023 to continue the headstone documentation. President Miller said a large effort is being planned either for next Memorial Day or the National Day of Service in hopes of setting a Guinness World Record. 

Local units can reach out to Volunteer@billiongraves.com if they would like their stakes to be involved.

“This is the fun of the gospel, to find creative ways to be inclusive, to bring in the community and work side by side,” President Miller said. “The idea there is we will learn a lot from this project, and take what we’ve learned to expand it. There’s a lot of work to do and we are only scratching the surface.”

Rescuing_Our_Roots_graphic__updated_July_2022.png

A flyer for the Rescuing Our Roots project documenting headstone data in partnership with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, JustServe, BillionGraves, FamilySearch and The History Center of Iowa.

Rescuing Our Roots Facebook page

Newsletters
Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed