Cathy Free: It's a grave undertaking, but headstones are his passion

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 26 2011 7:24 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — For years, the question has captivated children worldwide: “Where’s Waldo?”

Now, finally, there is an official answer.

"Waldo" is dead and buried in Gainesville, Fla. Jim Tipton spotted his headstone and snapped a photo while wandering through the city cemetery with his daughter on vacation.

There probably aren’t many parents who would rather take their families to a graveyard than the beach, but Tipton is one of them.

Tombstones have been his passion since 1995, when he tracked down gangster Al Capone’s grave in Chicago and posted a photo online during the early days of the Internet.

When friends started sending him snapshots of other famous gravesites (Lucille Ball, Benjamin Franklin and Elvis, to name a few) and requests came in to also honor the legacies of everyday people, Tipton figured he was on to something.

The Salt Lake City computer programmer, who started Find a Grave with a handful of photos, now runs a free online service documenting the whereabouts of more than 70 million gravesites.

Every day, another 80,000 or so names and photos are added to findagrave.com, making it the most popular way in the world to track down the burial sites of the famous, the not-so-famous and the downright ordinary.

“It’s staggering to think that just while we’re sitting here, 3,000 more photos are being added to the database,” says Tipton, 39, taking a noon break from online “grave digging” to share his story at a Free Lunch at the Sugarhouse Coffee Co.

“When I started this, I never thought I’d end up making a living helping people find where their friends and relatives are buried. I was just a nerdy insomniac, looking for something to do at 2 in the morning.”

Although Find a Grave is a helpful resource for genealogists, historians and families hoping to honor deceased loved ones, Tipton is thrilled that headstone hobbyists also feel at home on the site.

“Lots of people feel like they’re the black sheep of the family because they have this oddball hobby of hanging out at the local cemetery,” he says. “That’s how I felt for years. Only now, because of the Internet, people like me can visit as many cemeteries as we want to in one day.”

From Vietnam veterans hoping to find the final resting places of their comrades to school kids assigned to do reports on Davy Crockett (buried in San Antonio) or the inventor of the traffic signal (Lester Wire ended up in the Salt Lake City Cemetery), there is probably no dead person Jim Timpton can’t find.

Except for his mother-in-law.

“She died when my wife was young and we had no idea where she was,” he says. “And here I am, ‘Mr. Find a Grave.’”

Eventually, Tipton put the word out to hundreds of volunteer contributors that he was searching for Dolores Smith's headstone. Within three hours, somebody had tracked down the cemetery, snapped a photo of her grave and posted it online.

“So she’s no longer lost to history,” he says. “That shouldn’t be the fate of anyone.”

Tipton, who is accustomed to long sighs from his wife and children because he is continually pulling over on road trips to visit graveyards, has also amassed a collection of humorous headstones, but he doesn’t post them on Find a Grave out of respect for the deceased.

Among his favorites are the headstones of “Knock” and “Knock” in Illinois, the expired parking meter on the grave of a woman in Okemah, Okla., and the epitaph on Merv Griffin’s monument: “I Will Not Be Right Back After This Message.”

Appreciative of his own mortality, Tipton already has a headstone of his own waiting in the corner of his living room. A wedding gift from his friends, the tombstone is etched with the Find a Grave logo: a large question mark.

“I told my wife that when I’m gone, she can put the word ‘Jim’ on the back and move it around to whatever cemetery she likes,” he says, grinning. “But I’m hoping you don’t find my name on findagrave.com for many years to come.”

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