Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Why BillionGraves Is My Preferred Online Gravesite Database

When I first started this blog, I presaged a certain lack of inhibition with my opinions. So far, I have only moderately delivered on that promise. With the present post, however, I'm putting inhibition firmly aside and making what will surely be an unpopular argument. Here it is: is the best crowd-sourced online gravesite tool for genealogy...even better than the hallowed

A good portion of my readers are by now downright irritated with me, perhaps having already read my previous admonishments concerning Findagrave. I've learned that the love for this website among amateur genealogists is something comparable to the die-hard college football fan's fervor for their favorite SEC or Big Ten team. There's just no getting around that kind of devotion. So yes, I understand that I'm inevitably ruffling feathers here. To leaven some of this, I'll just say straightaway that I still use Findagrave for my research. And actually, I've contributed over 4,000 photos and memorials to the website since 2011. True, I haven't done much there lately, mostly because I have redirected my "graving" energy to BillionGraves.

But I also know that some of you might be persuaded to consider another point of view when it comes to graving sites, especially if you're just starting out in genealogy. And I have to say that, while Findagrave has had (and likely will continue to have) a huge head-start in the sheer number of memorials it boasts, and while we should continue to cite and take this resource seriously, BillionGraves is the superior research tool. I have three big reasons for believing so. (These relate back to the site's own blog post comparing itself to Findagrave:

1. BillionGraves' GPS-Tagging Requirement Is Important

Invariably, the research value of any crowd-sourced service comes down to how much it limits the damage done by the masses, and how much it maximizes their positive contributions. By multiple measures, BG wins this battle. The most important measure is that it requires all of its primary grave photos to be taken with its free mobile device camera app. These photos are tagged with GPS coordinates and plotted on its digital cemetery (and world) map. Findagrave merely allows GPS coordinates to be added with posted photos that users can take with any camera and no app. The difference here is huge. Consider what must go right in the case of Findagrave:

-The memorial page creator has to upload a photo in the first place. Findagrave unfortunately allows memorial pages to be created without grave photos. You don't have this problem at BG.
-We must trust that the photographer for Findagrave has photographed the correct stone, uploaded it to the correct cemetery page, and uploaded correct plot information, GPS coordinates, and descriptions to the memorial page. That's a lot of trust (assuming all of this information is even uploaded). BG's system requires much less trust for this data, and its app knows which cemetery you are working in. (There are, occasionally, app bugs that impair contributions to BG. While I haven't encountered them, I am aware of such cases. BG's developers and management seem to be good at addressing issues.)

Having the GPS coordinates automatically tagged and mapped for gravesite photos on BG is huge for another reason. How many photos and memorials on Findagrave come with specific information on where gravesites are located within cemeteries? (Have you ever tried to find a gravestone in a big cemetery, and had no idea where to look?) In my experience, this kind of detail is seldom provided there. With BG, I can in every case look at a gravesite photo on a person page, spot where it is marked on the map, and quickly find the location of this marker in the cemetery. Compared to what normally transpires with Findagrave, this is next-level efficient in terms of information verification. And that's at the heart of this whole comparison: BG is much better at allowing us to VERIFY gravesite information.

2. Nobody "Owns" Profile/Memorial Pages On BillionGraves

The whole setup for Findagrave, where one manager controls a "memorial page" for a deceased person, is crippling. According to the site's protocols, he/she who has first created a memorial for a deceased individual gets to thenceforth run that page and make decisions for the information presented on it until they wish to transfer management to someone else. Requests for changes and additions must be submitted to the "manager" for approval. Protocols require that duplicates of the deceased person's memorial page not be created, and, if they are created by mistake, they must be merged into the first one...which is again under the administration of a single manager. And if this person is a bad administrator, a poor steward of the deceased's information, a poor researcher (all of which are not infrequent), or has some ax to grind, oh well! The squabbling, bad practices, disinformation, "rogue duplicates," and memorial transfer chaos that have resulted from this state of affairs are legendary. As a reluctant manager for many memorials I have created on Findagrave, I let out a frustrated sigh every time I receive a request to change a date given on a gravestone because someone "is sure" that this other source they have is correct and the pictured gravestone is wrong.

Meanwhile, at BG, NOBODY owns anyone's memorial page. There is simply a page automatically created for every person transcribed from the gravesite photos. Whoever takes a photo of a gravesite has first dibs in transcribing the information that will appear on the deceased person's page, but this information is thereafter subject to correction from anyone who submits edits. Edit wars are resolved by the website's management, and not by whichever user "got there first." Duplicates are merged by anyone who finds them. New grave photos can be added to person profile pages any time through the same app. Transcribing can be done (and corrected) by anyone if the original photo uploader passes on this task (which he/she actually forfeits as an exclusive privilege after 2 weeks). This works more like a Wiki and strikes me as much better than what transpires at Findagrave.

3. Memorial Collectors Are Findagrave's Name Collectors

If you have any familiarity with Findagrave, you've likely seen the antics there of people whose primary purpose seems to be hoarding as many memorial page managements as they can. At their worst, these people will simply scan newspapers for fresh obituaries, see where the deceased are to be buried, and quickly create Findagrave memorials for them without ever having taken a photograph or left home. (Often, the deceased people's relatives are shocked to find their loved ones "memorialized" on Findagrave in such a way before they're even buried. This has understandably created much animosity.) In other cases, photographers will simply take large amounts of photos, create memorials for the deceased, and refuse to transfer management of these memorials to family members or anyone else who asks.

You don't have this problem at BG. True, there are contests and running counts of transcribing/photographing contributions there, but this is offset again by the fact that no user can claim management of any deceased person's profile page. I've seen it said that Findagrave can at times resemble an addicting video game for middle-aged people. BG may not completely avoid this tendency, but at least there people's "game" fixes are directed toward the more productive ends of providing photos and transcriptions that can be edited and reviewed by more people than single memorial hoarders.


One thing I don't really like about BOTH Findagrave and BillionGraves is that they aspire to being more than gravesite photo databases. I understand this; these websites have to earn money and support themselves. Extra features may attract users, sponsors, and/or partnerships. But these sites aren't nearly as valuable, research-wise, for being third-rate online family trees (with their linking of memorial/page subjects' relationships, and spaces for record uploads) as they are in providing strictly burial and gravesite information. This "treeing" tendency occurs much more on Findagrave than on Billiongraves, likely due to the former's popularity. But cluttering up memorial and profile pages with often poorly cited (if at all) "extra materials" can obscure, or even work against, properly treating gravesites as historical records, regardless of whether or not we think their data is correct.

I suspect, though, that another reason these features are much less used and abused on BG is because, from what I've gleaned, there is a culture there that fosters this kind of respect. As things stand, it appears that BG has a modest but stable crowd of people who consistently take and transcribe photographs for the site. Many of them seem to appreciate what a valuable research tool it is, and they grasp its potential.

True, BG lags far behind Findagrave in the size of its database. But it is growing steadily, and it needs and deserves devoted users who aren't afraid to go back out and possibly duplicate their photographing efforts in service of such a worthy resource. Even Findagrave had to start somewhere. If you haven't given BillionGraves a second or even first glance, I encourage you to do so.


  1. I agree that Findagrave has problems, not least with divas (and divos?) who need to claim territory, numbers, etc. And, for good or ill, it does record burials that might not have gravestones or gravestone photos. Some have been entered from death certificate data, interment record books, obituaries, and less substantial sources. Should those graves be forgotten?

    On BillionGraves, I have too often found photos of gravestones that were taken with insufficient care for lighting, focus, or distance from the target. Legibility? I think some were taken by enthusiastic people in a hurry (competition?) to get the job done. As I understand it, the photo is immediately transmitted to the BillionGraves site, without a chance for the contributor to look at and judge the photo, but I could be wrong. Does BillionGraves have a mechanism for getting a photo volunteer to return to a stone to get a better photo? (The same question could be asked of Findagrave, to be fair, but there is at least the chance to request a photo and communicate with volunteers who try.)

    1. I agree that BG is not free from problems, including the problem you that describe. Not every photo there is of great quality. (And I've inadvertently taken a clunker or two myself.)

      As it happens, the BG photographer DOES have the chance to look through his or her photos on the app before uploading them to the website. I do this routinely. Uploaders can also delete their photos at any time. Then, transcribers can flag uploaded photos that are of poor quality or that mistakenly don't have gravesites in them. These get weeded out by the management pretty quickly. Each uploader has (or has had) a composite star rating based upon photo quality ratings by the site's users.

      And, of course, anyone can take additional grave photos for BG. One grave is not limited to one photo.

      As far as the question at the end of your first paragraph, I agree that graves with no headstones shouldn't be forgotten. Sometimes there is no headstone to be found. In that case, I think there are better places to look for cemetery and other such non-photo records than on a website like Findagrave or BG. In any case, I find that well-sourced memorials lacking photos are the exception rather than the rule.

      Thanks for your comment.

    2. And as a matter of fact, you can add records and non-app photos as supporting records at BG:

      And here is their solution for unmarked graves:

      One would hope in any example of the second instance that supporting documentation would also be provided.

  2. Mmmmm.....I’m carefully considering what you’ve said. I’m a HUGE fan of FindAGrave, realizing all too well the problems you stated are, in fact, true. You’ve brought up excellent points about the differences between the two sites. But, every time I have gone to BG I am disappointed with the quality of the memorials, the photos and the site in general. I find it not generally appealing, too many ads and a little clunky to use. I just searched for my grandparents and they aren’t listed. This is all to often the case on this site. Perhaps in time that will change. I also enjoy using my camera to take photos, edit them once I’m back home and then upload them.

    1. Although I am not bothered so much by the ads and "clutter" on BG profiles, I acknowledge that you're right about these things mitigating against visual appeal.

      Thanks for your comment.