Grave undertaking: Utahn tracking down burial plots of all his ancestors

Published: Monday, April 26 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Lee Romrell poses at his home with one of his books of grave pictures.

Michael Brandy, Deseret News

Lee Romrell knows where all the bodies are buried.

For the past several years, he has been tracking down and trying to get pictures of all the grave sites of his ancestors and family members, which he has now compiled into a family scrapbook.

"I think this helps us appreciate them a little more," he says. "My children and relatives will also be able to have a better connection with their ancestors. This is a great legacy to our loved ones who have passed on."

Romrell started with the first ancestors that came to America: Francis and Mary Romeril, who came in 1855 from Jersey, in the Channel Islands of England.

"But notice the difference in spelling," he says. That was the original spelling, but, somehow, with Francis and Mary's children, it got changed to Romrell.

Francis and Mary had 11 children. Six of them came to Utah, although not all at the same time. Most settled in the Ogden area, but one daughter went to Canada, and other family members eventually scattered all over. Romrell ended up tracking cemeteries in such places as Ontario, Canada, North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Alabama, California, Montana; Nevada, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, as well as various locations around Utah.

He has visited those that are nearby, but for many of the far-away graves, he had to rely on help from total strangers.

"When people found out what I'm doing, they have been very, very helpful," he says. He wrote to city governments and public works departments. In Brantford, Ontario, Canada, he talked to a woman in one of the city offices and asked if there was any way he could get a picture of a certain grave. "She and a co-worker went out in the middle of winter, stood in a foot of snow, took pictures and sent them to me. She said it was a real treat to be able to help."

In Mandan, N.D., "I happened to call at a time when they were dealing with a flooded river. A guy told me he was busy right then with the flood, but he promised that after that, he would get me a picture. Sure enough, four months later, he went out and took pictures for me. It seems like I've always found people to help me out."

But it hasn't always been easy. He struggled for over a year to find a grave in Rogersville, Penn. "I couldn't find any links. It turned out the cemetery was privately owned. I finally found an e-mail address of a woman who had done an index of cemeteries in the area. And she just happened to have a friend that had taken photos of every grave. She was able to access his CD, and I got my photo. Sometimes, you have to go in an indirect way, but it's been fascinating."

He has done a lot of his research over the Internet; there are a lot of helpful websites, he says. Many municipal cemeteries now have indexes online.

But he also enjoys it when he can get out and visit the cemeteries on his own.

"There's something intriguing about roaming through a cemetery and checking out gravestones, especially when they are our ancestors."

Some graves can be very informative, he says. "I found the grave of my great-grandfather in Bennington, Idaho. Daniel Mark Burbank was married to two women at the same time, and when he died, someone listed the two wives on the back of the headstone, plus a list of all the children from each wife and when they were born and when they died. It was a fascinating find."

You can also learn a lot by the style and location of the headstone, he says. Some stones are very ornate, others more plain.

"Sometimes, even the location of a grave in a small cemetery can be a status symbol. In Mandan, N.D., for example, it is easy to tell how important a person was in the community by the section of the cemetery where he is buried."

He's discovered some other interesting facts. Such as:

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