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January 06, 2002

New program helping to keep track of cemetery plots


Cemeteries are more than final resting places. They also hold valuable clues to family histories, but only if the information is recorded in a usable form.

As the sexton, Sherri Matthews has been concerned about record keeping in the city's three cemeteries and has hoped to put all the information into a computer database.

A $25,000 software price tag threatened to stall the project, but with a lot of ingenuity and a few dollars in the 2002 budget, she is ready to start entering data.

"We used the Microsoft Access database and we actually built a program around it," Matthews said. "That allows us to log in every single lot that's open and it allows us to add all the old information too."

The $2,800 allotted in the new budget is earmarked for a consultant if the project gets in a tight, but she hopes it won't be needed.

"This program will print out invoices whenever I invoice one of the funeral homes for a burial permit, and it will even allow you to put in mapping," she said. "I can take pictures out there to zero in on specific areas."

The database has only been up and running since a few days before Christmas, but Matthews is already excited about the potential for keeping complete, uniform records.

"Right now, when people come in with questions, we have a 10-day waiting period, and it's hard on people who come in from out of town," she said. "I try to spend as much time with them as I can to find loved ones, but our cemetery has been here since the early 1800s, so you have almost 200 years of records."

Another advantage of computerizing the cemetery records is uniformity. Former sextons have recorded data in different ways with some indexing by location, some by name, and many early record keepers simply wrote information in a book.

In addition to simplifying the record-keeping process, Matthews is writing a policy and procedures handbook to preserve the new system.

"With just a little bit of training anybody would be able to come in and do my job, and that's the way it should be," she said.

Rather than simply naming the deceased and location of the burial site, much more information can be included since records will now be stored on electronic media.

"On the new ones I'm entering now, I put everything," she said. "I put who purchased the lot, who I'm mailing the deed to and their phone number if they'll give it - everything I can get."

Another record-keeping loophole was plugged early last year when the city decided to file deeds at the court house when lots are sold and pass the $8 fee on to the purchaser.

"People don't generally think of a burial plot as an asset, but it is," Matthews said. She frequently reminds owners of cemetery property that it should be treated the same as any other real estate when it comes to recording the deed and transferring ownership if the property is sold.

Some time ago, Matthews began the daunting task of starting in one corner of Oakwood Cemetery and writing down all the information on each grave marker.

In some cases, she is able to harvest more information on certain individuals from old records the city has kept. At one time, a former sexton kept records in tiny, pocket-size notebooks, written in an even hand with ink which has faded a to a soft sepia tone. Now, the precious notebooks are carefully stored in a filing cabinet waiting to have their information entered on the new database.

"I may not have these pieces of information anywhere else," Matthews said. "I'm going to make sure everything in these books is put down."

Matthews looks forward to the day when she can not only find records quickly, but supply relatives with a map to their loved one's grave site. Now, she hopes the day will come even sooner than she first anticipated.

"I had a three-year goal originally, and now that I know what I'm doing with this database, I think we're going to have it up and going in two years," she said.


Joan Sherrouse may be contacted via e-mail at [email protected].


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