I had to name myself. There’s no official club for Folks Who Get All Up in Dead People’s Business, but in the barest sense, that’s what I do. For fun.
It works like this: A couple times a year, I will walk a cemetery, looking for interesting stones. If you died young, I want to know why. If your stone makes me stop and look, I will start asking questions. I take pictures and note names.
If there’s a portrait of a lady in a giant hat? She is definitely coming with me.
Some names come through other means—an old postcard, say. Once, it was a printer’s engraving plate I found in some vintage furniture. All I need is a good name.
Back at home, I put the names through city databases and genealogy websites. I find census records. I plug them into newspaper search engines. I — yes — Google them.
As modern people, we understand that the idea that everyone is searchable online. But that “everyone” in our heads is the living, or the recently living. We don’t consider that old documents are scanned and indexed every day. Every week, more of the past comes to the surface. The growth of digitized archives and databases now means that even people who died a hundred years ago (or more) have a digital, searchable footprint.
Hello, grandpa. Hello, great-great-great grandpa. Welcome to the Internet.
This hobby started out as a one-time lark—you’ll see—but it’s taken on much deeper dimension for me. That name on a page was a living, walking person. They moved through our spaces. They were here.
But all this learning has been solitary. I’ve been pretty much the only one hearing these histories. I know the stories of strangers, and of family. Sometimes with joy, and other times as a burden. I hold their histories, their shames, their struggles, and their endings. I have seen joys and sorrows that were closed up in records long ago.
Now, I want to share them. ☗