Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dear Randy: Is Find A Grave a Reliable Source?

On my post Pruning the Tree - a Wrong Buck Family yesterday, reader Cormac commented:

"... you actually use Find A Grave as a source? Maybe as a starting point or a clue, but NEVER as a source. I don't consider it to be very reliable."

I do use the Find A Grave website (www.findagrave.com) as a source, and create Burial Facts for persons in my database that I find on the site.  If the memorial page for a person provides a birth date and/or a death date, I add those IF they are on the gravestone or in an epitaph.  Some Find A Grave memorials provide links to potential relatives - spouse(s), parents and children.  Some memorials provide a short biography from some source, and some provide an obituary.  

(memorial courtesy of Carol A. Purinton)

All of that is information from a number of sources, one of which is the gravestone itself. The gravestone may be an original source (the first written, oral or visual record of an event) or it may be a derivative source (not in the first form).  The Find A Grave memorial is certainly a derivative source document (although the image of a gravestone is a digital copy of the gravestone).  It may be correct, or not.  The information may be primary (first-hand information) or secondary (second-hand information) depending on the knowledge of the informant.  The evidence may be direct (it provides definitive information) or it may be indirect (it does not provide definitive information).  

The Genealogical Proof Standard requires researchers to consider all sources while performing a reasonably exhaustive search, weigh and analyze all of the collected evidence using the types of source, information and evidence, resolve conflicting evidence and draw sound conclusions.  As part of this evidence collecting process, a diligent researcher will also pursue other records for the information on a gravestone and a Find A Grave memorial, including birth records, marriage records, death records, cemetery file records, funeral home records, newspaper articles, family papers, family Bibles, etc.  

For many persons in my database, the Find A Grave memorial, with or without a gravestone picture, is the only record I have for a person's death date and burial location.  So I use it, and source it.  Frankly, I have found very few Find A Grave records where a given death date (from the stone or an epitaph) does not match other records (e.g., a Death Index entry or a Social Security Death Index entry).  To be sure, there are many gravestones and Find A Grave memorials that do not have exact death dates, and some are off by a year or two (compared to other records).  

What bugs me, frankly, is the Find A Grave memorials that do not document a burial site, but document only what was found in other records.  I see a lot of these for New England records, where there is a link to a parent on a Find A Grave memorial but the burial location of the parent is not known.

Yes, Find A Grave memorials can be very useful as finding aids and clues for dates and other family members.  But they do provide information material from a (usually) derivative source.

Is any specific Find A Grave memorial a "reliable source?"  The researcher has to make that judgment based on all of the evidence available.

What do you think?

The URL for this post is:  http://www.geneamusings.com/2012/11/dear-randy-is-find-grave-reliable-source.html

Copyright (c) 2012, Randall J. Seaver


Unknown said...

Sure I consider FindAGrave a source like any other. How much weight and credibility I give any memorial on it is where the analysis comes in.

When I use the site I try to limit my takings only to what I can see on the screen of the gravemarker itself. And then I try to source the information through different means.

Like you Randy, FindAGrave or my own trip to the cemetery, is sometimes the *only* evidence of someone's existance. Especially in the case of deceased infants.

Gerry said...

I think we are inclined to give too much credence to things that are written on stone.

There are often two stones for Civil War veterans, one that matches the stone for a spouse, another the familiar government issue. Thus the spectacle of Jerome S. Campbell, 1829-1901, resting between his Sarah and his veteran's stone inscribed Jorom S. Campbell, 1839-1901.

The practice of obtaining markers for previously unrecognized veterans is laudable but can lead to errors. Wesley Greenman died of his injuries in 1866, but his stone says he died Dec 13 1928. Coincidentally, that was the exact date of death of his brother, veteran William Greenman, who led a long and well-documented life, and was buried in a different cemetery entirely.

Based on comparisons of death certificates with gravestones, engravers regularly confuse burial dates for death dates.

Monuments erected by the loving children long after the death seem especially prone to incorrect birth years.

Some monuments are placed in a cemetery where family members are buried although the decedent is not buried there at all.

Some of the FindAGrave memorials are detailed and helpful. Others are undocumented and suspect.

Not that I don't use 'em all the time - but as suggestions, not as evidence.

Jacqi Stevens said...

Randy, I was going to mention that those "set in stone" engravings aren't always correct themselves--and then I read Gerry's comment, providing even more instances! In addition to errors on dates, spelling errors are also possible, as I've seen in my own family lines. It all just teaches me that using a preponderance of evidence is the wiser move. One fact alone--even engraved in stone--may not provide an accurate picture.

Cormac said...


Gerry explained it even better than I did. I have scores of memorials there that have nothing but maybe a year of birth or death. No picture of a gravestone or marker. Like Gerry said, I would use Find A Grave as a suggestion and/or starting point. If you have a date of birth or death, where is your proof? Yeah, some memorials have a picture of the marker, but paraphrasing what Gerry and Jacqi said, not everything that is carved in stone is gospel.

Jim (Hidden Genealogy Nuggets Blog) said...

I have found in most cases that Find-a-Grave to be very accurate (at least with my own ancestors). I love it when there is a digital image of the gravestone. I have requested and received a number of photographs to be taken. There are volunteers on the site who will try to go out and take a photograph if one does not exist.

Regards, Jim
Hidden Genealogy Nuggets

bgwiehle said...

Most of the comments have been focusing on the Find-a-Grave memorials as if they are unchangeable. Among the great things about the site:
- memorials can be amended with more detailed dates and places, pictures, links, comments, etc. They can be transferred to someone more closely related. Comments can be added when flowers are left. You can request a photo of the grave from local volunteers.
- contacts can be made with memorial owners or with people leaving flowers. If someone is making memorials for a whole cemetery but your person is missing, contact them!
- collections of memorials can be organized using virtual cemeteries

Yes, there are errors and there are incomplete or preliminary pages. Come back later to see if the memorial has been updated. Or better, provide the correct information to the memorial owner so everyone benefits.

Unknown said...

A source is a source is a source... Dare we ignore any source in our research? I think not. Having a source, however, is not the same thing as evaluating a source, its information, and its evidence. As you point out, Randy, it is the evaluation (ala the Genealogical Proof Standard) that transforms data collection into genealogical research. As usual, thanks for a good job well done.

Gerald Cohail said...

There is one more thing to keep in mind when viewing information at Find A Grave -- even if you have an image of the headstone available.

If your ancestor died before the mid-1850s and their gravestone is made from granite, with a nice pristine face, it is not likely an original. That would make the dates upon it suspect, in my mind. The headstone should reflect those common to the time period in which your ancestor was buried.

Some headstones were obviously placed or replaced with modern headstones decades after the death and burial occurred.

Kim B.G. said...

In my research, I was able to prove over half a century's family lore that my great-grandmother went to her grave fudging her age. Her gravestone is incorrect by several years. Also, after my grandfather's body was donated to a university science department in 2002, our family was given his remains to be buried. At the cemetery a few years after his death, my father realized as my grandfather's casket was being lowered into the ground, that he was being buried alongside his sister, who was of the same name as my grandmother. My aunts told my father to remain quiet so as not to offend anyone due to the mistake - especially the priest. To this day, my grandfather is still buried in the wrong plot.

In my family, I am always redefining the meaning of the word "reliable."

RonH said...

I think it would be more accurate to use the tombstone as the 'source' and FindAGrave website as the 'repository' for the source.

Roder51 said...

Good point but even headstones can be inaccurate. 90% of the memorials posted for Newfoundland, Canada for example were copied from the Grand Banks Genealogy site and therefore can also have inaccuracies. I always laugh when a see a memorial on FAG and a member is complaining that a certain website stole their memorial. Irony at best comes to mind.

Unknown said...

Speaking from 1st hand experience, www.findagrave.com is not a reliable source. They have volunteers that gather up information and interpret it as they feel. In my case, someone calling themselves 'Mom' recently added a nickname for my brother. Apparently s/he assumed that because his name is Joseph, she could add the nickname 'Joe'. I've repeated asked that it be changed and I've gotten a response that says it's been fixed but it hasn't. So they blatently do as they please from what I can tell.

Unknown said...

I know they are volunteers, and some of them seem to try their best. They just copy paste what info they find. Doesn't seem like they bother to verify anything at all. It's frustrating, unnerving, and almost demeaning to have so many dead family members and see virtually every entry entered incorrectly. I'm not saying I would be able to do better for a stranger, but I would try to. It's stressful trying to get them to fix it for your lost loved ones.

Robin said...

As a findagrave volunteer I can only speak for myself & the few volunteers I have contact with. We try our very best to get the info correct. I personally like old cemeteries, I go to the location, take pictures, pull weeds from around the headstone to get the best photo possible, always try to check the cemetery/church records for info & family connections. Once I upload the pictures & enter all the info I have, then I verify what I have with Ancestry records. I look at the family trees, birth, death, marriage, divorce records, census, etc... whatever I can find. I sometimes end up with more info then their family tree had, I verify it all. I connect them all with their family including parents, spouses & children. When we spot a mistake on another memorial we contact the original poster & have then correct it. If a family member contact us wanting control of the memorial we normally transfer it to their care. If you find anything wrong with a memorial just hit the correction button & tell them what needs to be changed. You can also become a free member & add your own memorials, just make sure they are not duplicates that will need to be merged later. You do not have to be a member to add photos to a memorial.

I love history, have been working on my own tree for about 25 years, love research & was taught at an early age to respect cemeteries/graves. It really touches your heart when a family member emails you thanking you for the time you spent on their relative's memorial & the research you did to make sure it was correct to the best of your ability.

Maggie said...

"Once I upload the pictures & enter all the info I have, then I verify what I have with Ancestry records. I look at the family trees, birth, death, marriage, divorce records, census, etc... whatever I can find"
WHY? It does not sound respectful of the information you have found to try to do someone else's genealogy. Recording the information on the stone is a great service and a valuable resource. I know you want to help, but what you think you have "verified" may not in fact be accurate and is obviously creating problems online. Please let the family members do their own genealogy.

Unknown said...

How can a record be corrected when the person maintaining the record intentionally omits information? Can the other family members file a grievance? Thank you!

Unknown said...

Susan Miller said...
I really appreciate all the Find-a-grave volunteers do to take photos and share the information available at cemeteries with people like me who are unable to walk around large cemeteries due to health problems. I became a Find-a-grave volunteer so I could easily suggest edits when I had additional information. I have been enjoying researching my family history for 56 years, and the internet has made this research so much easier and faster. I have found when I suggest edits and include details about the sources I have for the information that corrections are usually done very promptly. The cemetery may be the only source to learn a child was born and died, and the old newspaper records in the library near the cemetery may be the only place an obituary still exists. I also appreciate being able to connect with distant cousins who have left flowers on memorial pages and memorial pages that include the inscription on stones that are too worn to be legible in the photo.