What Are Virtual Cemeteries? And How Do You Use Them?

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There’s no need to leave the house if you want to find a grave in the 21st century. Several online services offer “virtual cemeteries,” which let you search graves and create memorial pages from the comfort of your own home.

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You might know where your closest loved ones are buried, and you might like to visit their graves now and then. But virtual cemeteries let you quickly track down the graves of more distant relatives and create memorial pages dedicated to multiple family members. 

And you can do even more with a virtual cemetery to piece together your genealogy or honor departed loved ones. 

What Are Virtual or Online Cemeteries?

A virtual or online cemetery is a database of grave records that you can search or browse through. They provide information about the deceased person or people you look up, including their birthday, death date, and place of death. Virtual cemeteries sometimes also include photos of the people, as well as their headstones. 

Virtual cemetery options.

If you want to try out a virtual cemetery, whether it’s to find a family member’s grave or set up an online memorial, you have options. These are the three biggest providers of virtual cemeteries: 

Find a Grave

Find a Grave is the most well-known virtual cemetery (due in no small part to its catchy name), and it’s often the one people turn to first. Find a Grave took an even greater lead in 2013 when genealogical site Ancestry.com acquired it. 

The site primarily features photos of gravesites and headstones and their relevant information. The information and photos are submitted by users, free of charge. 

You can search for a headstone and gravesite on Find a Grave using the person’s name, birth date, death date, and location. The site also lets you create memorial pages and virtually tour interesting monuments and epitaphs. 

Billion Graves

Billion Graves led the way on mobile when it first launched its app version of a virtual cemetery. Today--both on its desktop version and on mobile--Billion Graves functions in much the same way as Find a Grave. 

Users submit photos and gravesite information to the site, and they can search through the constantly-growing database in several ways. You can use Billion Graves to locate the final resting place of a loved one, a distant ancestor, or a famous deceased person you’d like to pay a visit. 

Deceased Online

If you’re searching for a grave across the pond, you might want to pay a quick visit to Deceased Online. Find a Grave and Billion Graves both let you search for graves in many different countries, including the UK. But Deceased Online also includes cremation and official burial records. 

Deceased Online touts itself as “the central database for UK burials and cremations,” and it allows you access to info from many official UK sources. 

How did it start? 

Virtual cemeteries started popping up more and more around the Internet as users took a greater interest in memorializing loved ones online. 

Social media sites (Facebook, in particular) created a novel opportunity for members to make heartfelt posts and dedications to the deceased. Facebook even lets a “legacy” member “memorialize” an account after someone’s passed away. 

Having those tools available helped many people feel like they were doing something special for someone they’d lost. And dedication posts and memorialized accounts help families grieve together, no matter how far apart they may be. 

The creator of Find a Grave actually made the site all the way back in 1995. Jim Tipton, the site’s founder, first created Find a Grave as a database of celebrity graves. It later expanded to include non-famous gravesites, too. 

But, as they grew and evolved, virtual cemeteries took memorialization tools several steps further than traditional social media could. With online cemetery databases, it’s easy for Internet users to find and memorialize the gravesites of loved ones online. 

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Why Do People Use Virtual Cemeteries? 

Virtual cemeteries serve as memorials as well as archives. You might incorporate a virtual cemetery when you set up an online memorial to a recently-deceased loved one, or you might search for a long-lost ancestor. Here are some of the ways you can put a virtual cemetery to use. 

Finding graves

One of the most practical purposes a virtual cemetery serves is the location of physical gravesites. Using a virtual cemetery database, you can search for a grave using the person’s name and other information if you have it. 

You might need to locate a grave for any number of reasons, or you might just be curious about where someone is buried. You can search for distant relatives using a virtual cemetery, but you can also find the gravesites of famous people and notable figures. 

Tracing genealogy

Virtual cemeteries are also useful if you’re piecing together your family’s ancestry or genealogy. You might discover the final resting place of a family member you never knew you had, or you might make other connections you couldn’t have made otherwise. 

Virtual cemeteries are such a crucial resource for genealogists and historians, in fact, that Ancestry.com acquired Find a Grave in 2013. 

Creating memorials

Finally, virtual cemeteries let users create online memorials to honor departed loved ones. Using an online cemetery, you can create a “grave” for someone who might not have a physical gravesite. For example, those who choose cremation don’t often have a tangible headstone. But sites, like Find a Grave, don’t limit their “graves” to those that really exist in real life. 

Additionally, you can create family memorials using online cemeteries. A memorial page might feature the virtual graves of multiple family members, grouped together to form a sort of “family plot.” 

These online memorials make it easier for other loved ones, friends, and family to pay their respects. Some online cemeteries even allow guests to leave “flowers” on the grave, as well as write short dedications to the deceased. 

How to Use a Virtual Cemetery

No matter how you want to put a virtual cemetery to use, it’s relatively easy to get started. Here are some steps to help out. 

Step 1: Search as a guest or create an account

On the three sites listed and described above, you can get started with as little as a family name. Just type a last name into the search box and click “Start your search,” or “Search,” and you’re on your way. 

On Billion Graves, you can also refine your search by entering a first name, birthday and death date, and cemetery location, for free. 

On Find a Grave, you can search for free using those data points, and you can check boxes like “Not buried in a cemetery,” and “Similar name spellings.” You can also refine your search by entering a spouse, parent, child, or sibling’s name. 

To access similar advanced search options on Deceased Online, you have to create an account. To create an account on the site, you’ll need to enter information like your name and address. 

To make an account on Find a Grave or Billion Graves, you only need your name, an email address, and a password.

Step 2: Upgrade your account (optional)

Searching for graves is free of charge on all three sites. But if you want to, you can also upgrade your account (on  Billion Graves and Deceased Online) to access more features. Those include things like priority support, partner discounts, and more advanced search tools. 

Find a Grave remains free-to-use, including the creation of memorials and donating of flowers. 

Step 3: Contribute and create memorials

Billion Graves and Find a Grave are both community-sourced, but they approach the process in different ways. Billion Graves relies upon “volunteers,” who photograph gravestones and “transcribe” headstone information into the site. Find a Grave source data from everyone who uses the site personally, resulting in a huge database of graves and memorials. 

You can add a memorial by becoming a member of Find a Grave and entering all of the requested information. You’ll have the chance to write a bio about your loved one, add photos, and open up the memorial to allow people to leave virtual flowers.

Step 4: Make a cemetery

Find a Grave also has a unique feature that allows members to create their own virtual cemeteries. Using this tool, you can add multiple memorials or gravesites together on one page, resulting in a personal digital cemetery. 

You can then invite family and friends to the web page, giving them the opportunity to visit each “grave” in your “cemetery,” read through the memorials, and leave comments and flowers. 

Will Virtual Cemeteries Replace Real Graveyards? 

The price of burial rises higher each year, and more and more people are choosing to forgo the cemetery experience entirely. Instead, many people opt for cremation, which means they often don’t have a grave or headstone at all. 

In the future, this decrease in burials could lead to a drastic uptick in virtual cemeteries. Existing cemeteries like Find a Grave could expand and offer even more services, and more providers of virtual cemeteries might enter the market, too. 

And while there’s something visceral about visiting a person’s actual resting place, many people appreciate the ability to pay their respects from the comfort of home. 


Sources

  1. “Virtual Cemeteries, Rotating Photos, User Profiles, and More in the Updated Find A Grave iOS App.” Ancestry. 22 April 2014. https://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/2014/04/22/virtual-cemeteries-rotating-photos-memorials-and-more-in-the-updated-find-a-grave-ios-app/
  2. “Become a BillionGraves Volunteer.” Billion Graves. https://billiongraves.com/volunteer

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