For some, a typical hobby consists of collecting memorabilia, but to a surprising amount of people worldwide, their free time is spent finding and visiting graves, whether they belong to celebrities, or long-lost relatives. Find a Grave, an online database that boasts a collection of 107 million grave records, was created to cater to the needs of these individuals.
“I always liked graveyards as a kid,” Jim Tipton, founder of Find a Grave, said. “I like to call them parks for introverts. You can walk around and no one will bother you to play Frisbee.”
Tipton is not the only person who has been inexplicably drawn to the comforting quiet that could be considered a trademark of cemeteries. A.J. Marik, an administrator of the site, attributed his involvement with the site to his love for the quiet. He said “I love the search, the solitude, the relaxation. And the sense of history I feel when reading the headstones.”
“I’ve always found graveyards to be kind of a peaceful place,” said Sokona Diallo, a Northeastern University Freshman majoring in Psychology. “It’s the only place you can go to get away from everything, which is kind of ironic because you’re among the dead.”
But, as time goes by and the site gets more and more hits, many people are becoming fascinated by the phenomenon Tipton introduced.
“The hobby of ‘graving’ has become quite popular,” Marik said, referring to the act of searching out graves. “Going out to the cemetery and having it all to yourself seems to be a bit of a thing of the past.”
Blyth Phillips, a photographer from New Zealand who uses the site to scope out historically relevant grave sites, finds solace in shooting pictures of headstones.
“Final resting places are fascinating,” Phillips said. “You really get an eerie feeling of peace, even knowing that these decayed corpses are below you.”
Despite the macabre implications behind a site dedicated to searching for graves, Tipton’s original mission was far from morbid. Rather, the site was born from the escalating popularity of the internet in 1995 and Tipton’s fascination with HTML.
“I was a pretty classic nerd, so I needed an excuse to make a website, any website,” Tipton said. “Find a Grave started out as just a list of twenty dead celebrities and where their resting places were. Then I started getting feedback from people visiting the site telling me that one celebrity or other should be added to the list.”
“Find a Grave is a modern day phenomena, where one guy built a website to assist his own hobby, took on a few helpers, and saw it grow to such a grand size that it has become almost impossible to manage,” said Marik.
Tipton’s casual leap into the world of ‘graving’ was inspired by coming across Al Capone’s grave in Chicago, as well as seeing the grave of Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetery in London. Tipton considers the most memorable graves he has seen, and listed them as some of his “favorite graves”.
Other administrators at Find a Grave play favorites with graves they’ve visited, as well. Marik’s is Humphrey Bogart’s at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, CA, a graveyard where he originally was visiting a family member. Russ Dodge, another administrator of the site, favors the graves at Laurel Hill in Philadelphia.
“Visiting the graves of historical figures has a profound effect on me,” Dodge said. “It gives me the opportunity to honor them and give them a moment of remembrance.”
“I’ve always been interested in history,” Phillips said. “I’ve been in the states for a year, and graveyards here, especially in the New England area, are so saturated with history.”
Another common use for Find a Grave is genealogical research. Many visitors to the site utilize it for family history, discovering the final resting places for long lost relatives.
“We have a feature on the site where members can put in requests for pictures of specific graves, usually family members,” Tipton said. “We have a great community, so about 80 percent of the time someone who lives in the area where the graveyard is located will go out and take a picture and upload it to the site.”
Tipton gave a touching example, recalling a time when his now-wife had never seen her mother’s grave. She requested a picture, and someone got back to her within a few days. “It was a really moving experience,” Tipton said.
The site also offers a virtual graveyard, where people who have no access to a physical grave can honor their loved ones. “They can leave virtual flowers and a message, update bios, dates, and vital info,” Marik said. “People actually use it in their mourning and healing process regarding recent, and even not-so-recent family deaths.”
“I’ll go to cemeteries to speak with my dead family members,” Diallo said. “Even though I don’t think they can hear me…it isn’t always convenient to travel somewhere just [for that], though.”
The genealogical aspect of Find a Grave has proven useful to the database administrators, as it led to the recent acquisition of the site by Ancestry.com, a large family history based for-profit organization.
“The news about Ancestry acquiring us is really fresh, but it’s going to bring around some great improvements,” said Tipton. “Along with an extended team, we’ll hopefully have a mobile app developed within the next year.”
“I would never have guessed that what began as a small project would have snowballed into what [Find a Grave] has become today, but it’s going to keep growing.” Tipton said.