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Grave encounters: Project gives students unique perspective on history

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Submitted photo Cottey College student Emily Moore hunts for a grave in a Vernon County cemetery, to fulfill a request for a photo submitted by a user of findagrave.com. Users are usually searching for graves of ancestors, but since they live far away and can't visit the cemetery in person, they post a request for a photo of the grave on the site, which is then fulfilled by volunteers. Emily is one of 21 Cottey students who volunteered to fulfill such requests this semester.
By Lynn A. Wade

Nevada Daily Mail

History is about the stories of people, and a group of local students has spent the semester helping others find out more about their own family stories.

Students in Cottey College's U.S. History to 1877 class have been volunteering for the genealogy Web site, findagrave.com.

Dr. Angela Firkus, who teaches the class, said the oldest grave found by the students was that of a person who died in 1875. "Of course, many of the people were born before 1877."

Helen Lodge, a genealogist herself and a Cottey College employee suggested the project to Firkus, who thought it would be a good project for students. "It's a Web site used primarily by genealogists," where users can look up information about their ancestors -- or others, for that matter, such as historic figures or famous people, Lodge explained.

Users post requests for a photo of the gravestone, and volunteers can claim the request and fulfill it by posting the photo. When Cottey students do so, the original poster gets a message that the request has been fulfilled by a Cottey student and can post or email a message.

"They've gotten tons of thank-yous," Lodge said.

Using requests posted on findagrave.com and printed out by Firkus for the students, "We took as many as we could and walked through the cemeteries looking for the requested headstones. We then took a picture of the headstones to be later uploaded to the Web site," said Demi Baldwin, one of 21 students involved in the project.

At first, students weren't sure about the project.

"Most of the students that I talked to were skeptical about visiting a cemetery to begin with, however, after the initial volunteering, many would say that it was one of the most interesting volunteer experiences they have ever had," Baldwin said.

The students visited Deepwood Cemetery, Newton Cemetery, Click Cemetery and Jewell Cemetery in Vernon County. Some were well-maintained; others, less so.

"Finding headstones sometimes required wading through tall grass and clipping away weeds to reveal the headstones," Baldwin said.

Even so, she found it a rewarding experience.

"For me, it was interesting to see generations of families buried in the same places. Many times, someone would request to see more than one family member's grave site; and they would usually be buried next to if not close to each other. In addition, we were able to see the grave site of Virginia Alice Cottey, the founder of our college."

Lodge said that at one cemetery, a neighbor was mowing the grounds, which she thought was a good thing for the students to see -- the respect neighbors had for the cemetery in a rural area, and how they take on the responsibility of maintaining it.

The project opened Baldwin's eyes to a new perspective on history.

"While doing this project, I found myself looking at the names engraved on the headstones and wondering what the people were like. I wondered what kind of jobs they had, their accomplishments, the historical events they had seen or experienced, and what their personalities were like. It gave you a profound respect for those who have passed away," she said.

Lodge said she sees the project as a winning proposition for everyone involved -- "the students are doing a service project, the people (on the web site) are getting their requests fulfilled, and people all around the country who might not have heard of Cottey College can learn about something our students are doing."

Given the opportunity, Baldwin said, "I would most definitely do it again. It was really cool to see that something so simple could help other people. It also made you think a lot about how you wanted your remains to be treated after you die. Many people are leaning toward cremation, but after this project I decided that it would be cool to have a grave site that my ancestors could visit."

This semester's project has been completed, and reflection papers also were written by the students, Firkus noted, adding that there are plans in the works to continue the project next semester.

"The requests just keep rolling in," Lodge said.


"They received tons of thank-yous"

Here's a sampling of the messages of thanks sent to Cottey students after grave photos were taken and posted on findagrave.com. (Users often use screen names or first names, not full names.)

"Hi, guys, Thank you very much to all of you for doing work like this while you are at school. It is fantastic that you are engaged in activities such as this. And thanks in particular to whoever took the photos of Jerry Vineyard and Paul and Dovie Morey's gravestones. I really appreciate your time and effort. Take care and good luck in school and life."

-- Kathy

"Thank you so much for the nice photo. You have enabled me to finish another limb on my tree. Much appreciated."

-- Rita Boyer Hatfield

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They should have ventured out to Balltown Cemetery in Horton. The pre-civil war graves are fascinating.

-- Posted by LWelch on Tue, Dec 11, 2012, at 6:26 PM

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