Billion Graves is as project that crowdsources the photography of gravestones and grave sites around the world.
Today, I became a participant in that project when I pulled into a Catholic cemetery off of Route 7, stepped out from the comparative warmth of my Honda CRV and into the bitter, freezing, frosty cold of early January. Public schools had been closed due to the day being “too cold”, since buses would not start in the morning, there was ice on the ground, and other hazards. Just to give you an idea of how chilly.
I stepped out of the car with my snow boots and iPhone in hand, with the Billion Graves app newly installed. Billion Graves provides an easy-to-use iPhone app that you download, pick or add a cemetery, and go about photographing headstones in that cemetery. Once you’ve completed taking clear photographs, you upload them in the app and they appear under the section of whatever cemetery you were recording. Some cemeteries in Northern Virginia, quite a few actually, have hundreds of photographs. The one that I was photographing had a handful.
I trudged through the main sidewalk that cut through the entire small cemetery and took pictures of about ten graves on each side before stomping through the snow to some of the more off-the-beaten path graves. Whether or not there were sidewalks that led to these other areas I can’t say, because the ground was covered in snow. I ended up taking a total of forty grave photographs, focusing on stones that had clearly spelled out names and family members. Many of the graves were of husbands and wives together. Many of them were of family members with the same last name who appear to have died with decades in between. I made sure to crouch down, snow boots and all, to get the entire grave transcription, name and dates in the image. My images ended up being fairly cripsy and easy to read.
After taking my photographs, I headed back to my car to upload the photos through the app. They were successfully uploaded, and appeared under my Billion Graves profile as contributions.
I did hit a little snafu in my contribution to Billion Graves. The cemetery that I was walking in and photographing did not seem to be among those listed in Billion Graves’ automatic listing of cemeteries, so I added a new cemetery on the app and named it “St. Athanasius Church”, since that was the name of the church overlooking the cemetery. I added my device’s location as the address and went about my business photographing headstones. After walking for a while and adding pictures, the app began to automatically organize my pictures into the category of “St. Andrews Cemetery”, which apparently is the name of the cemetery. This name wasn’t listed on any signs, so I just went with the name of the church, and now Billion Graves has two entries that are side-by-side. Now that it is a big deal, the app makes it pretty clear that the church and cemetery are right next to each other, so I don’t think there should be any confusion. Editing the name of St. Athanasius didn’t work out either, as this seems to be on the Billion Graves app side and not accessible to users of the app once they’ve submitted a new cemetery.
EDIT: As I check on the status of my uploaded photographs, they don’t appear in my Billion Graves website account, they only appear as uploaded on my Billion Graves iPhone app. Whether this is a syncing issue between their mobile app and web app or something else I don’t know, but that seems to be a plausible explanation for why the photos appear as synced on my app but not on their website. I would like to have access to my uploaded photographs on the website, but it seems like I’ll have to keep checking back until they appear.
Aside from that small blip, I’m glad to have made a contribution to the project. I was surprised at how no one I talked to about the project seemed to find it odd that I would be going about taking snapshots of the grave stones of people I have no relationship with. I didn’t think it was strange either, so I’m glad that that seems to be the default reaction.
People like to connect with their roots. Not necessarily all people, but many people. The popularity of web applications like Ancestry.com gives some idea of how interesting many people find examining their genealogical and historical roots to be.
For me, I was more interested in the larger human story outside of any one family. The fact that we periodically lose such incredible people forever seems unnecessary. It seems like there really must be a better way. I’m heartened by the fact that many efforts at advancing anti-aging and geriatric medicine have started to enter the commercial mainstream. Companies like Google’s subsidiary Calico and a whole slew of smaller gerontology biotech companies seem to feel like aging, degeneration and death don’t need to be something that we as a society just accept slowly.
As I was trudging back to my car in the freezing cold I passed a gravestone that had no name listed on it, but had instead a paragraph long poem. It was extremely cold, and there was no name on the headstone, so I quickly read the poem and kept on walking without snapping a photo. The poem was basically a paragraph long description of the departed’s final years on Earth. How their family watched as their loved one became ill, and the family struggled to hold on and to help their loved one heal, but eventually the illness lead to frailty and eventually death. The family fought that illness till the end, without success.
And the closing line…
“He only takes the best!”
The capitalized “He” being a religious reference.
As our society continues to march forward and navigate the wilderness of the human body with the map of science and technology, we can only hope that families such as that one will have better equipment with which to fight the illnesses of their loved ones. Maybe they’ll win next time and keep a beloved member of their family around for a while longer. If some radicals in the field of geriatric science and high technology have their way, maybe they’ll keep them around for a long, long while longer.
Ray Kurzweil, a recipient of The National Medal of Technology and director of the Google Brain project, is even making efforts to preserve artifacts of his late father’s life, believing that at some point in his life (Kurzweil is 63 years old) technology will be have become sophisticated and powerful enough to allow him to reconstruct his father based on these artifacts. From an article in ABC news online:
Kurzweil’s father, an orchestra conductor, has been gone for more than 40 years.
However, the 63-year-old inventor has been gathering boxes of letters, documents and photos in his Newton, Mass., home with the hopes of one day being able to create an avatar, or a virtual computer replica, of his late father. The avatar will be programmed to know everything about Kurzweil’s father’s past, and will think like his father used to, if all goes according to plan.
That’s an interesting quote for historians, especially digital historians, because you’ve got someone with a pretty well-established track record in technology openly saying that if you’ve got these historical records, these documents and correspondences and photographs, then you’ve got at least a somewhat reliable image of who the person was. It may be that, as technology continues to progress, the material historians assemble will be the templates for the construction of interactive avatars and places. We’re already doing this with our Online Exhibit project in this class. As time goes on, these exhibits may just become more immersive.
People will go to great lengths to prevent the death of the people they love. It’s a loss that I came face-to-face with as I walked through that cemetery and recorded the sites of the final location in so many people’s lives. One thing I did notice as I was photographing this cemetery, which had graves dating to the time of the Civil War and possibly farther back, that the average span seemed to be increasing. That’s not a scientific analysis obviously, but it was typical to see people born in the 1800’s dying at 60 or 64 or something similar, while people born in 1930 and later regularly had 80 to 90 year life spans. Let’s keep that going.