I work with genealogy data every day. But lately I've wanted to get out of the office and help record the important facts left behind on tombstones.
One of the many content partners whose data we index at FamilyLink is Find A Grave, so that's where I started.
I signed up as a contributor and found some photo requests for a local cemetery I had never visited before. It was only a mile or so away from my office in Provo.
During lunch I jumped in my car to locate the cemetery and take a look around. I planned on going back again later with the printed photo requests to gather the requested information.
In no time I was winding up the side of a mountain on an old paved road, just high enough to be above most of the homes. East Lawn Memorial Hills Cemetery was quite picturesque. I meandered through the cemetery roads a bit and then pulled over and began to walk the rows of in-the-ground, flat tombstones.
The cemetery is nestled in the foothills above Provo, near the mouth of Provo Canyon. Mountains soar behind it. Paths wind among the trees, hills, flower gardens and graves. Utah Lake dominates the vista to the west, with more mountains beyond it.
There are more gravesites here than first appear; the flat headstones hide in the grass until you come close to them. I was alone with the residents, at peace, a few hundred feet above the hustle and bustle of the suburbs.
I ventured toward a couple of young trees, which appeared to have a sign strung between them.
I could see that great care had been taken in stringing the sign, and the tree trunks had become columns of pictures, tied with orange ribbons and bows. There were pumpkins at the bases of the trees.
The pictures were of all of the same family, dressed for several Halloweens. The little boy in the pictures was Cooper; his name was spelled out on the sign. I had not yet seen his grave.
A few steps from the trees, I found it. Little Cooper’s windswept hair, mischievous eyes and big, happy smile were now embossed forever in bronze, with a lake in the background. Cooper's parents have since told me that the lake is Navajo Lake, near Cedar City, where Cooper loved to wade and skip rocks. It was the most beautiful tombstone I had ever seen.
Suddenly, the graves all around me felt alive.
A gravestone is not just a rock in the ground with some lettering on it. It marks the final resting place of someone's son or daughter, brother or sister, parent or neighbor or friend. To someone like me, who is involved in the never-ending work of family history, perhaps this should be obvious. But on that day in that place, I felt it as I hadn't felt it before. A grave is a place to keep memories alive.
comments on this story
I went back a couple of days later with Cooper's name on my list of photo requests, because the Internet is a place to keep memories alive, too. I met a brother and sister who are also Find A Grave contributors. They were busy walking the rows, looking for graves of which photos had been requested. They hadn't seen Cooper's grave yet. I told them they were in for a special moment. I imagine them lingering, as I had, amid the Halloween decorations, at the beautiful resting place of a beloved little boy.
Take the time to work on your genealogy. Learn more of the stories of your own ancestors, and sooner or later you'll find some special places like Cooper’s.
Note: Cooper's family has a blog where you can learn more about Cooper, the annual run established in his memory and the family’s memories of their son and brother.
Mark Olsen is a blogger and a genealogist. Mark is working on his own family history and works at FamilyLink.com where he is online marketing manager.