Saturday, October 31, 2009

Memorial for Cremains

With the increasing popularity of cremation, a major concern for family historians has been the documentation of our ancestors. When a body is cremated, there are not many opportunities to create a memorial for the departed. Now, a new method of memorializing our ancestors, the individuals who have been cremated, is being introduced.

Read on, this is very cool.

This is courtesy of the Delta County Independent newspaper, and thanks to Leland Meitzler and for bringing this to my attention.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Cemeteries as Tourist Spots

Here is an interesting piece in

Cemeteries are being recognized as resources to document the culture and history of communities in the United States.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Chinese Genealogy and Architecture: An Interesting Combination

Here is an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal about the centrality of genealogy and ancestry worship in China. It is eye-opening the extent of the respect and honor held for ancestors in China.

Thanks the Laura Carter, Tom Kemp and the Genealib list for bringing this article to my attention.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Shame of the Southern Cemeteries

A few years ago, I was traveling through the counties of North Georgia in search of a grave for a client. A long lost uncle had been buried in a Georgia county whose name will remain anonymous. At one stop in the County Clerk’s Office, an employee of the office suggested the grave may have been plowed up and become part of a farmer’s field of corn. At the time, I disregarded the comment as a simple attempt at sarcastic humor. But now, after several years of work in exploring and documenting cemeteries in Georgia, I realize this comment has more than a little bit of truth to it.

It seems as though Georgia cemeteries are often regarded as inconvenient hindrances to developers and urban expansion. Too many times I have encountered stories of cemeteries, some abandoned, some not, that are getting in the way of real estate development and the developers are working with county, or local officials to disrespect the final resting places of our ancestors.

A recent case in point: an African-American cemetery in the ritzy, Atlanta, neighborhood of Buckhead is being threatened by a developer. The cemetery has been abandoned for some time. It is, however, clearly a cemetery. At least one large tombstone is visible from the road. As abandoned property, the city took control of the land because of unpaid taxes. The developer then bought the land with the intention of building high rise condominiums on the property. Descendents of the cemetery residents are currently suing to stop the development. Yet, the simple fact they have to resort to litigation to stop the development is a truly shameful statement about the respect for the dead in the State of Georgia.

Disrespecting the dead is not a recent phenomenon in Georgia. An example from the not too distant past also comes to mind. In the 1970s, Georgia was developing the interstate system through the city of Atlanta. In the construction of the off-ramp for Cleveland Avenue in South Atlanta a cemetery was uncovered. At first, it was believed this cemetery was the remains of an historic slave cemetery. Later it was determined this was the neighborhood cemetery most often referred to as the Gilbert Cemetery with burials as early as 1847. It was an African-American cemetery. After more investigation, archeologists determined the cemetery was a relatively large burial ground; an estimated 700 to 1000 graves existed at one time. With development in the area in the 1960s, portions of the cemetery had been paved over for a liquor store parking lot. And, with the construction of I-75 the remainder of the cemetery had been uncovered.

Today, a memorial plaque, with some stones has been erected in the green space in the clover leaf exit of Cleveland Avenue. The memorial has made an effort to document some of the internments in the Gilbert Cemetery. But most of the dead will forever remain unknown. More than a memorial to the dead of Gilbert Cemetery the plaque at Cleveland Avenue more appropriately highlights the shameful treatment of the dead and the cemeteries in Georgia as they compete with development in the urban south.

Monday, October 19, 2009

More Documents Every Day

The National Archives has a backlog of 400-500 million pages of records that need to be processed. Footnote has uploaded 60 million images and is adding more than 1 million news records each month. Meanwhile, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City has committed to digitizing their entire collection of more than 2.5 million reels of microfilm.

This information came courtesy of an editorial by Tony Burroughs on His point is one worth emphasizing, that new records are coming available every day. Because of this enormous increase in accessibility of information, the work of family history is never done. Because of this ever increasing abundance of information, Genealogists and Family Historians can never say we have searched every record and every document to find our ancestors.

The discovery and release of new records and documents is not simply an event from national institutions. Everyday, local historical societies and libraries make available new resources. As a local example, the Atlanta History Center acquired a spectacular newspaper collection in 2001. It has been processed and has been available to researchers for the past three years. The finding aid is just now being prepared for on-line research. In this collection are newspapers from North Georgia that were unknown to exist fifteen years ago! As these papers become more accessible it is exciting to think about the new information about our ancestors that will emerge from these pages.

Other examples of new document discoveries include plantation records becoming available in South Carolina after a repository re-processed a finding aid. Or, in South Georgia, loose records from Tattnall County have just recently been indexed and abstracted.

Militia rosters, orphanage records, and other resources are being uncovered each day. Truly, the access to information and resources increases with each sunrise. This is good news for all of the Genealogists and Family Historians in the world. This means our work is never done, and new resources are constantly being made available for use.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Benevolent Societies: Another Source for Family Research

Just recently, I have been working with a couple of fraternities to organize their papers into, a relatively, accessible archives. As I started to sort through the many minute books and rosters of members, I realized once again the value these books have for Family Historians and Genealogists. For someone who understands the history of a fraternity or benevolent association, the information contained in these pages could be invaluable.

Fraternal organizations and benevolent societies have been in existence since the times of Greece and Rome. The development of the Freemasons and their organizational scheme in the 1700s was a watershed time for all fraternal societies. Some historians go so far as to suggest that all benevolent organizations owe some credit to the Masons for leading the way in recruitment and membership.

The popularity of all fraternal organizations in the United States is particularly unique. Dating back to the Age of Jackson, the peculiar tendency of Americans to join fraternal societies was noted. In his work “Biography of a Nation of Joiners,” Arthur M. Schlesinger noted the popularity of fraternities in the United States. Membership seemed to expand exponentially after the Civil War. With the rise of industrialization, farmers moved to urban centers to find jobs in the factories. Increasingly, these farmers felt isolated, alienated, and living of the edge of financial ruin. In the event of death of the main bread winner a family could be left impoverished and with no means of survival.

The tendency towards sudden, violent death in the factories of the United States encouraged many workers to join benevolent societies and fraternal benefit organizations for financial security. These organizations guaranteed death benefits to families whose members died in the factories. Some of these groups evolved into labor unions, while others remained fraternal benefit organizations.

For Genealogists and Family Historians, all of this information is important as potential clues and direction to new research about our ancestors. Lists of members, benefits paid out, transfer requests, and simple minute books are all potential sources of information that may provide us with new information about our ancestors. Was your ancestor a member of the Royal Order of Hibernians? Or, were they members of the Order of Railway Conductors? After the Civil War, was an ancestor a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, or the Sons of the Confederacy?

There were hundreds of fraternal organizations and benevolent societies in the United States. If their records can be found, the membership of our ancestors may tell us a great deal for our family history.

Friday, October 9, 2009

In Praise of Newspapers

These days, it seems appropriate to remind readers the importance of newspapers to American society. For genealogists and family historians, newspapers are particularly valuable as sources of local information. Only in the pages of the newspapers in small town America can we learn of the local gossip, the travels and travails of our ancestors. Today, I want to acknowledge the value and importance of newspapers in greater society.

I have been informed that National Newspaper Week is coming up. Unfortunately, I feel as though I am writing the eulogy when I say that newspapers in the United States have played a vital role in the development of the country. It is not an exaggeration to describe the newspaper industry as the fourth column of defense in the promotion and advocacy of democracy in the world.

If you look back over time, newspapers in the United States have played a role in almost every major event in history. Beginning with the publication of the Declaration of Independence, when there were only 13 newspapers publishing in the country, and continuing up to the most recent coverage of the war in Iraq, or the recent Presidential election; news coverage has had an impact on the United States and world events.

At times, this influence has not always been positive; thinking back to the period of Yellow Journalism and the beginning of the Spanish American War. But, newspapers and editors have learned from their mistakes and more often than not, journalists have had a positive effect on United States events and history.

The bad news is that newspapers are slowly dying. The internet as the latest source of information, coupled with the sparseness of advertising, is slowly spelling the demise of paper copies of information. This is truly unfortunate. But the many causes of this death and the ramifications to American society are appropriate for another time. Today is simply a day to acknowledge the value of newspapers, the hard work of journalists and editors, and their influence on society. To everyone in the profession: Thank you.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Reading the Cemetery

The personality of a cemetery, like the character of a city, becomes obvious almost as soon as you enter the front gates. The green grass around well tended monuments, for example, suggests a character of quiet, noble honor. Elaborate mausoleums with excessive design adornments speak of gilded age excess. Flat brass markers suggest a love of nature; possibly this is an attempt to enhance natural vistas around the final resting place of our ancestors.

All of these examples, and so many more, serve to announce the character and personality of the cemetery. By learning to “read” the cemetery we can better understand the ancestors who are buried there. Even before we explore tombstones and monuments for symbolic meaning, we need to look at the landscaping, the design and craftsmanship found in the cemetery.

When a cemetery allows only flat brass markers, buried at ground level, the property ceases to be a cemetery and becomes a memorial park. Does this say something about the community that supports a memorial park? Do we accept that the community is striving to protect natural vistas? Or, is this simply an efficient and inexpensive method of maintenance?

In the western United States, some cemeteries have very little maintenance. Grass is not planted. Paths are marked with pea gravel; while plots have fences or raised beds of dirt. This may say something about the desert climate and the harsh living conditions experienced by our ancestors. Even in death, the cemetery underlines the hardiness and fortitude of our kin. Or, am I reading too much into the imagery? Are these, actually, signs of a partially abandoned cemetery?

Just these few examples highlight what it means to “read” the cemetery. Before we examine the tombstones and monuments for symbols and personal meaning, we need to look at the bigger picture. The character of the burial ground, like the larger community or our ancestors, can tell us a great deal about their personality.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

October is Family History Month

With the coming holiday season, it seems appropriate to begin the season by thinking about family and family history. October is Family history month. As the months wind down, we have Halloween; then Thanksgiving is just around the corner. By the time we have finally digested the full turkey dinner, Christmas and the New Year are upon us. Mixed in between these dates, to commemorate diverse cultures and heritage, we have Dia de Muertos, Columbus Day, Kwanza, and Hanukah.

Regardless of which holidays you commemorate, the next three months is a time for celebration and family togetherness. Now is the time to think about adding to the family history and genealogy. Consider the possibilities. In the past, a number of ideas have been presented as ways to build our family history. There are a variety of ways to add new light to family history, or present the old material in different ways. Collecting oral histories, creating family websites, or blogs; or preserving and scanning family photographs are just a couple of ways to honor the family.

As you gear up for the coming holidays, enjoy family history month. This marks the beginning of three months of celebrating and honoring family. Happy Family History Month!