People whose hobby is visiting cemeteries and photographing graves.

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Oct. 29 2009 9:36 AM

I Spend My Free Time With Dead People

The strange hobby of graving.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

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.

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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.")

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