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BillionGraves and JustServe Volunteers Photograph Millions of Gravestones

’These projects are blessing people all around the world and both sides of the veil,’ project coordinator says

This story appears here courtesy of TheChurchNews.com. It is not for use by other media.

By Mary Richards, Church News

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

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

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

Two young JustServe volunteers help clean gravestones to prepare them for photo documentation with BillionGraves in the Lexington, Kentucky, area on October 10, 2020. Photo courtesy of BillionGraves and Church News

BillionGraves special projects coordinator Cathy Wallace also serves as JustServe national administrator. She posts these volunteer opportunities on the JustServe website and app. She also helps coordinate large groups of missionaries, ward members and youth groups who want to serve.

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 for online posting.

Members of the Lexington Kentucky North Stake found a gravestone project on JustServe during the pandemic. They gathered more than 250 Church members of all ages to participate in a grave-photographing event on October 10, 2020.

Wallace said volunteers were asked to photograph headstones and/or transcribe names and dates on their home computers. More than 16,000 headstones were photographed and then transcribed.

Lexington Kentucky North Stake members also led another BillionGraves project that included three stakes on April 24, 2021. 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 work at more than 121 cemeteries in less than 12 weeks. Previous Church News stories have reported on similar youth service projects in the Philippines in 2018 and Blythe, California in 2015.

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 2020. Photo courtesy of BillionGraves and Church News.

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 ancestors’ gravestones, but also allow future volunteers to see exactly what has already been photographed, said Wallace. The GPS location is a crucial tool when documenting private family burial plots or smaller cemeteries on private land. 

The gravestone records can be easily added from BillionGraves to FamilySearch, which helps other relatives find the records so they can 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 now operates in eight countries — Argentina, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Northern Ireland, Puerto Rico, the U.S. and the U.K. — and New Zealand and Chile will be 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 gravestones can search JustServe for “BillionGraves” or find more information on planning and logistics through this BillionGraves blog post.

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