Good old Findagrave.com! What would genealogists do without it? The answer is "not too much," if your average online family tree is any indication. But as fun and attractive as this website is, the amount that novice researchers tend to use it is starkly out of proportion to its merits as a research resource. Put another way, one mark of your genealogy proficiency level is how much you rely upon this beloved website. This post discusses why.
First, let's quickly recount some background information. Findagrave.com was founded by Jim Tipton in 1995 as a means to keep track of famous people's graves he visited. Within a few years he opened up the site to include the graves of any people. Contributors take photographs of burial markers, upload them to Findagrave, and create profiles (called "memorials") for each of the people listed on the photographed markers. Memorial creators can not provide transcriptions of the information shown on stones, they can also add other photos and information (family portraits, obituaries, etc.) to memorials. As of this writing, the website says that over 180 million memorials have been created. In 2013, Mr. Tipton sold Findagrave to Ancestry.com, which renovated and currently runs it.
If this is the first you're hearing of Findagrave (unlikely), it won't take you long to understand why it continues to be so popular. Nor could you fail to notice how much it is discussed and deferred to on facebook genealogy pages and other online forums. The reasons are that "graving" is fun, and this website offers basic vital date and other information listed on far-flung headstones that is available at the click of a button. And, as its biggest fans will repeatedly remind you, it's FREE.
But these things are also clues as to why Findagrave is sometimes (okay, a bit more than sometimes) a genealogical liability. Its ease of use and availability can lead to bad research practices. You see it all over: profiles for online family trees that, if they list any sources whatsoever, list Findagrave and not much else for birth dates, baptism dates, death dates, marriage dates, and much else. Is Findagrave really an authoritative source for these things? No, it isn't.
At its best, Findagrave.com is either a subsidiary, secondary-ish source for death/burial information, or it is a convenient way to signal that you yourself were physically at a gravestone and photographed it. Those are its very best uses. At its worst, Findagrave is a spreader of bad habits and/or misinformation. In instances of the latter, there are many memorials with no grave photo at all, erroneous transcriptions, badly sourced supplemental data, or grave photos assigned to the wrong cemeteries or even people. Think about it this way: unless you yourself created the memorial you're citing, you are relying upon complete strangers to faithfully photograph a grave, assign the photo to the correct cemetery and person, transcribe the text on the marker, and be correct with any other information they post on the memorial's web page. That is a LOT of trust.
Remember what I said in my last post: the BEST historical sources are primary sources. For how much of your ancestors' life information is a Findagrave.com memorial a primary source? Answer: none, zero, zilch. The gravestone itself may not even be a primary source. With nothing else to go on, how can you be sure that the stone dates from the time of the deceased's death, or how can you know when the stone was made and finally added to the burial site? How can you be sure that the information on it is correct? How can you even know for absolute certain that the stone sits above the resting place of the people it claims to? (It is quite possible in some cases that a spouse dying long after the buried partner is interred elsewhere, and that the stone makers put his/her name on the grave marker when it was assumed the couple would be buried together.)
In many cases, a Findagrave memorial is even a tertiary source. This is typically true for birth dates, which gravestones are notorious for sometimes getting wrong. (People creating death records often guess the deceased's birth year based upon the age at death.) The stone itself would be a secondary source for the birth date, while a photograph of it on a website would be a tertiary source: a reference for a secondary source that is twice removed from primary witness. And yet, plenty of online genealogists gleefully cite Findagrave memorials for birth dates as if this source alone is sufficient authority for them.
So, how does a responsible genealogist approach using Findagrave.com? Here are some guidelines:
1. A Findagrave memorial created by someone else is not by itself the most trustworthy evidence for death, burial, and especially birth dates. It works best when it is cited in conjunction with better sources for this information: birth certificates, birth notices, and baptism records (in the case of birth information); and death certificates, obituaries, funeral bulletins,
cemetery records, headstone purchase receipts, and the like (in the case of death and burial information). When it strengthens primary sources, a Findagrave memorial is at its most solid and justified. It gains clout in synergy with these other sources, while it lacks clout alone.
2. If you have a Findagrave memorial and nothing else providing needed information, your conclusions must remain provisional until better sources can be found to help verify the data.
3. Visiting a gravestone and photographing it yourself (provided the photograph is done well) is always better than relying upon someone else's photograph on a website. If you can do this, you may not even want to cite Findagrave.com at all, even if you've created a memorial there for the deceased person in question. You can just cite the monument itself (while including the date you visited the cemetery and other key bits of information, per Evidence Explained). I typically do cite Findagrave memorials for people whose stones I have personally photographed, and for whom I have created such memorials. Why? Because it's an easy way to share with others what I have done. (Note: Nowadays, whenever possible, I create and cite profiles on BillionGraves.com instead of memorials on Findagrave.com. I consider BG to be a superior tool for several reasons, but this is a subject for another post.)
In summary, treat Findagrave.com VERY cautiously as a source. It's kind of like the genealogical version of sweets and fats at the tiny top of the Food Pyramid: use sparingly and carefully for your family tree's optimum health. Little about historical research done well is quick and easy. Findagrave may be a convenient solution, but it's almost never the best solution all by itself.