I Spend My Free Time With Dead People

The strange hobby of graving.

Not long ago, I met a woman named Cara at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. She led me to a computer kiosk tucked under a big gothic archway at the main entrance. The computer allows you to browse the names and resting places of the 560,000 people buried in Green-Wood’s 478 acres. Cara entered a name into the search field—“Johansen, Mathias”—and pressed “locate.” A map appeared with a red square indicating general burial location. She zoomed in to a hand-drawn plan of subdivided lots. Lot 38325 was marked with a red “X.”

“He’s there, but we’ll have to walk up and down the rows to find him,” Cara said. A lot can contain dozens of residents, but the computer doesn’t pinpoint individual graves. So Cara sketched a map, then entered the next name on her list.

Cara doesn’t know anyone on that list. She’s a graver—someone who visits cemeteries for fun. (She asked me not to use her last name because she doesn’t want her employer to know how she spends her Saturdays.) The graving hobby encompasses a range of activities: There are tombstone tourists who plan vacations around the resting places of 1950s Hollywood stars and military gravers who track down the government-issue markers of fallen 101st Airborne soldiers. Genealogical gravers fill blank spots in their family tree with information gleaned from far-flung headstones. Preservationist gravers use bleach to clean mottle from 200-year-old markers. Many gravers just like to hang out in cemeteries and look at the stones.

The Web site Find a Grave is where gravers spend time when they’re not in cemeteries. It’s a sprawling database of more than 36 million burial records. Each record consists of a page where the living can enter a deceased’s name, biographical and genealogical details, and burial location. You can also leave comments and virtual flowers, and upload portraits or headstone photos. The database is searchable by cemetery, date of birth or death, and, if applicable, “claim to fame.” Think of Find a Grave as Facebook for the dead.

Like Facebook, Find a Grave is growing rapidly. According to Find a Grave founder Jim Tipton, 35,000 records are added every day. Tipton started the site in 1991 as a small directory of celebrity graves. Its ambitions have grown significantly since: The site’s FAQ page declares an intention to document the resting place of everyone who has died. “We’re gaining ground,” Tipton told me. Not quite: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 155,131 people die every day worldwide.

The records on Find a Grave are added and managed by an army of volunteers. (Find a Grave has more than 500,000 registered users, though only a fraction of those are active.) Many contributors simply create records for their family members as an online memorial. But others add hundreds—even thousands—of records for complete strangers. They spend hours each week visiting cemeteries, photographing headstones, and entering data.

These hard-core gravers have built a culture around documenting the dead. The bustling Find a Grave forums are filled with cemetery jokes, graving stories, and advice. In one thread, gravers discuss the practice of rubbing shaving cream on old graves to make worn lettering more legible (some argue it causes corrosion). In another thread, gravers show off the contents of their graving kits: kneepads, digital camera, notepad, calamine lotion (for poison ivy). After Michael Jackson died in June, a user with the handle Gravegirl1 posted, “Do you think his death has made it easier to discuss our hobby with people? Some people that I talk to don’t understand why I love visiting the graves of famous people. I just feel like Michael Jackson has made it more ‘socially acceptable’ to be a graver to the masses.”

There is a well-defined etiquette among the more serious Find a Grave contributors. The preferred method for creating a new record, if you don’t know the deceased personally, is to transcribe their headstone. This requires visiting a cemetery. “Ploppers”—users who haphazardly create records with information gleaned from strangers’ obituaries instead of their headstones—are looked down upon by the Find a Grave cognoscenti. Experienced gravers complain that ploppers invariably enter incorrect burial locations or biographical details and accuse them of caring more about the quantity of records they contribute than their quality.

I contacted Cara through the Find a Grave forums. When the weather’s nice, she spends every other weekend photographing headstones for the site and invited me to tag along for her trip to Green-Wood. I was expecting someone who spends so much time in cemeteries to be more macabre, but Cara is a vivacious, thirtysomething blond secretary, who wore oversize sunglasses and athletic shorts. “Usually I do it for the exercise, so I bring my iPod,” she said.

As she explained the plot-locating kiosk to me, the guard manning the gatehouse made his way over to us, and I started to get nervous—I’d read stories on the Find a Grave boards of gravers being harassed by suspicious cemetery employees. But Cara smiled and waved. “Hi, John,” she said. “So you got a helper today,” John replied, nodding at me. Later on, Cara explained to me that she’s told John she’s a student doing research, in order to justify her repeat visits and her photography, which is technically forbidden by Green-Wood to protect clients’ privacy. (In an e-mail, Ken Taylor, vice president of operations at Green-Wood, said, “While the photos posted on the find-a-grave site have not been authorized by Green-Wood, they are harmless.”)

It’s not surprising that Cara feels she needs to make excuses for hanging around a cemetery. Yet it’s also somewhat ironic, considering that the cemetery Green-Wood is modeled after was once a major tourist destination. In 1831, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society founded Mount Auburn Cemetery just outside of Boston. The meticulously landscaped, 72-acre Mount Auburn was a major improvement over the typical urban graveyard of the time, which was cluttered and poorly maintained. Bodies were stacked on top of one another in the ground, leading to the occasional protruding bone. Then there was the smell: Occupied graves could lie open for days before being filled. Mount Auburn, by contrast, offered a pastoral landscape dotted by stately monuments.

Within a few years, Mount Auburn was being mentioned in the same breath as the Erie Canal and Niagara Falls, two popular tourist attractions of the 1830s. In cities across America, associations began buying up suburban land for the dead—they wanted their own Mount Auburn. Green-Wood, founded in 1838, was the product of this “rural cemetery” movement. In 1869, the art critic Clarence Cook wrote of the rural cemeteries: “They were among the chief attractions of the cities to which they belonged. No stranger visited … these cities for pleasure or observation who was not taken to the cemeteries.” But even by the time Cook was writing, memories of Civil War killing fields and the rise of city parks had dampened the public’s enthusiasm for cemeteries.

After Cara finished looking up names at the kiosk, we walked past the grave of the founder of Green-Wood (not a modest man) toward our first target. As usual, Cara was looking for headstones other Find a Grave users had requested photos of to accompany records they’d added, usually for a relative or an obscure historical figure. (One current Green-Wood photo request is for Mary Ann Duff, a renowned actress from the mid-1800s.) Cara started graving after a Find a Grave user took a picture of her own great-great-aunt’s headstone for her. “I’m a big believer in paying it forward,” she said.

Cara and I walked down a gravel path, passing through a shady tunnel of low-hanging branches, emerging into a rolling field bristling with obelisks, squat mausoleums, and 20-foot-tall Ionic columns. Cara spotted the first names on her list, snapped a couple of pictures with her digital camera, and we moved on. I asked her if she gets depressed being around all these dead people.

“I don’t know anyone buried here, so it’s not morbid,” she said. “Up until I started doing this, I had only been to cemeteries for my grandparents’ funerals, and it was so sad. I was crying; my parents were crying. But this—it’s beautiful!”

Cara darted down the rows of graves, practically speed-walking. Her brisk pace notwithstanding, she has a pretty laid-back attitude toward graving. She takes time to note strange names—Minnie Coffin, interred at Green-Wood, is one of her favorites—and savors her time in the cemetery. At one point, we stopped to examine a Zinker, which is Find a Grave slang for a type of weatherproof, bronze gravemarker popular in the late 1800s. “I love Zinkers,” she said. “It’s totally ironic that they paid $100 less than the people who bought the granite ones but they outlasted them all.” Cara wants to photograph every Zinker in Green-Wood. In her two and a half years as a member, she’s added just over 3,000 records and taken about as many pictures.

Other gravers are more prolific—frighteningly so. Terry McGuire, a contributor from New Jersey, is No. 23 on Find a Grave’s top-50 list. She’s added more than 83,000 records in her eight years on the site. I called McGuire, eager to know what motivates someone to document a small city’s worth of dead. “Genealogy and a great interest in history,” she said. McGuire’s method is different than Cara’s: Armed with a laptop, she descends on a cemetery and will spend days systematically photographing and transcribing every headstone in it. “God knows I have no life,” she told me.

At the other extreme is 28-year-old Monica Stockwell, with just 70 records added in eight years. She uses Find a Grave mainly as a tool in accomplishing what her profile describes as “my life’s goal of visiting 1,000 famous graves in my lifetime (and hopefully more).” Stockwell has visited more than 600 dead celebrities since starting her quest in 1991. Each year she flies cross-country to see her three favorites in Los Angeles: Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Stewart, and Jack Lemmon. “With Marilyn and Jimmy and Jack it really is like going to pay your respects like any family members,” she said. “I feel closer to them than any family.” Not long ago, Stockwell paid $3,000 to reserve a cremation niche in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the final resting place of Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin Jr., and other Old Hollywood stars.

After about two hours in the cemetery, Cara realized that if we didn’t head back to the entrance soon we might get locked in for the night. “That’s my biggest fear in the world,” she said. “No one wants to sleep in a cemetery.” I was exhausted—we’d probably walked three miles—but we reached the front gate with a few minutes to spare. There, John the gatekeeper told us security had just caught four guys scratching up the glass at the cemetery’s new mausoleum. Cara shook her head. “When I hear about this stuff I just think: Really? You don’t have anything better to do than this?”