The Forest Lawn Project
(Please read this section if you are working on Forest Lawn on Find A Grave)
Problems and Technical Issues
The Ongoing Sequel
I must have discovered the Forest Lawn cemeteries website on 18 March 2011. I discovered a link to the website on the Find A Grave page for the Glendale location of Forest Lawn. The reason I know the date is because I created two sets of memorials on Find A Grave that day, one for my half great uncle Sam Wolf from Wichita Kansas and his wife Martha, and another for two people born in Posey County, Indiana; James Downen (my 2nd cousin 3x removed) and Ruth McKinnis Downen (his wife, and also the granddaughter of a father-in-law of my 1st cousin 4x removed William Downen). I was fascinated by Forest Lawn from that moment on because this was the first cemetery I have found with relatives buried in it from both my mother's and father's sides of the family. My mother's family was from Kansas and my father's family was from Illinois and Mississippi, so apart from some of the national cemeteries where veterans are buried, Forest Lawn might actually be the only cemetery in the country where I will find individuals from both of those groups buried.
If you are reading this and you don't know what Find A Grave is, well here is a link to the site, and here is a link to a Wikipedia article on it. I consider it a wonderful genealogy resource.
I have been driving past the Hollywood Hills Forest Lawn for years, and I have always been impressed with how big it was and what nice views it must have. Sadly, in more recent years I have been there a few times for funerals, but the views from the grounds are every bit what I would have expected. As I learned more about the different Forest Lawn cemeteries, I became even more fascinated with the Glendale one. That's the first one, the granddaddy of the whole chain, and there are almost as many people buried there as are in the other five cemeteries put together.
Much as I loved poking around on the Forest Lawn website, I soon discovered some things that bothered me about it. I had no problem with them not displaying the information for some actors and celebrities buried there, I'm really not interested in most of those people from a genealogical standpoint, and you can find out where they are buried from other sources. One of the things I noticed was that once you had made 20 queries against their website in an hour, it would stop you from searching for anyone else until the end of that first hour had passed, then if you searched again and hit your limit again, you couldn't do anything else until two hours had passed. For someone researching a lot of different family names, it was kind of frustrating. Also, it didn't matter whether you got any hits on the queries you made or whether they were the people you were looking for, once you had made your 20 queries you were out until the timer had expired. As I looked at more and more records I also realized that Forest Lawn must have been dealing with paper records that were scanned and then run through an OCR process, because I started seeing certain errors that are typical of OCR mistranscriptions. Some of them were obvious, other's not so much. I would see a place where a letter 'O' was in a name and it should have been an 'E' or a 'C', or vice versa. Sometimes the letter 'G' would be rendered as a letter 'Q', and so forth. Still, all in all, it was way better than no data at all. Also, there was no way to search through the entire Forest Lawn system for someone, you had to specify which cemetery they were in. If you didn't know if someone was in Glendale or in Hollywood Hills, you would have to use two queries and search both cemeteries, and those would count against your hourly limit of 20.
At a certain point I noticed something that was almost worse, in a way. When you queried a person and they came up on the list of matching entries, if you clicked on the person's name it would take you to a different screen that displayed the actual interment information for that person (cemetery, section name, map reference, lot number, and space number). These pages are actual html pages, which sounds great, you should be able to link to them as a source if you want to, and some people do so. I found out, to my horror, that Forest Lawn does not keep these pages at the same location from day to day. Every night around 8:30 their website goes down for around five to ten minutes, and one of the things that happens in that time is that they reassign the web addresses for virtually all of the interment data they keep online.
My wife, who has been working with computers even longer than I have, had trouble believing this until I showed it to her. The unique number at the end of the web address that each interment record has is regenerated every night and the numbers are reassigned so that the numeric sequence of the numbers is exactly equal to the alphabetic sorted values of the names of those buried. Someone whose last name is Aaron might actually keep the same interment URL for a while, but anyone whose last name starts with a B or anything past that is going to end up with a different URL every night.
I don't know if Forest Lawn did this to obfuscate their data purposely or it is just out of some misplaced sense of keeping things perfectly ordered. Either way, it bothered me because it meant that if you tried to link anything on the web to this interment information on the Forest Lawn website, you were planting a stake in a sand dune, it wasn't going to be where you left it the next time you went looking for it.
Almost every problem has a solution. For this particular situation, I decided Find A Grave was it.
Once I realized how the names and interment information were stored on the Forest Lawn website, I actually got an idea of how much information was on it. At the time I started seriously trying to figure out what to do with it, there were close to 650,000 names and interment records on their site. That's a good amount of data. I won't bore you with the technical details but suffice it to say I am using an actual relational database program to keep track of that much information.
I found a web page grabbing tool that enabled me not only to pull data from Forest Lawn's website but also to query some websites that have state death index information on them and social security death indexes. And later on, as I found out, I could use it to pull information off of Find A Grave too, which was a good thing to have if I wanted to see what names were contained within a cemetery on Find A Grave so I wouldn't end up creating duplicate memorials.
Actually downloading the interment records took months. As I would accumulate enough interment records, I would then query the names on the site to get the death dates and then use database queries to match up the interments with the death dates. Once I had the death dates matched up I could submit online queries against the California death index (for the years 1940-1997) and the social security death index (1998-early 2003 for the website I was using to search the SSDI) and use the names and death dates to find the birth dates and any other information that was contained in the death indexes (this could include father's name, mother's name, place of birth, place of death, or place of last social security benefits or social security residence address).
The main reason I am putting this out there is that I know other people are out there working on Forest Lawn in Find A Grave and I am hoping that they don't spin their wheels and duplicate work I've already done. The following paragraphs do indicate holes in my research (like people who died before 1940 or after February 2003) and any of the areas where I haven't gone would be fertile fields for someone else to work on.
Very early on I decided that I would only add records from the Forest Lawn website to Find A Grave if I had both birth and death dates. Since Forest Lawn does not show the birth dates I had to match up the death dates against the death indexes I mentioned earlier. This also had the advantage of capturing other data about the individuals which could prove useful from a genealogical standpoint, and excluding records with errors in the names or dates from being transferred to Find A Grave. Statistically, I don't know what the odds are of having the same error independently on the Forest Lawn website and the California Death Index or SSDI but I would imagine it's a very small likelihood, one I am perfectly willing to take a chance on.
These factors limited the scope of my project to people who met the following criteria:
Had a death date listed on the Forest Lawn website (599,777 out of 652,305 records)
Died between 1940 and early 2003 (471,253 out of 599,777 records)
Had a birth date listed in either the California Death Index or Social Security Death Index (414,451 out of 471,253 records)
As I have been going through these records cemetery by cemetery I have tried to exclude memorials that are already in Find A Grave, so far I have located 23,863 that are in Find A Grave and have excluded those from being uploaded. There are others that I have missed but Find A Grave seems to be pretty good at eliminating those either during the upload process or shortly thereafter.
After subtracting the known records in Find A Grave I got down to 390,588 people. As of the end of February 2012, approximately 298,000 of those 390,000 have been uploaded to Glendale and to Hollywood Hills. The remaining ones are split between the Covina Hills, Cypress, Long Beach and Cathedral City locations of Forest Lawn. As time permits I will upload those over the next month or so, although I expect to exclude at least 10,000 names from those remaining because they are already in Find A Grave.
The only exceptions I have been making to not adding memorials without birth dates is that I have found people in the Forest Lawn website who appear to have military ranks and some of those I have not been able to find in the death indexes. As some of them died during wartime (primarily WWII and the Korean War) I have been adding these individuals manually in hopes that someone will come forward with more information or I will have time to research them myself. This is only a few hundred people so it's not going to be a big deal to add them in by hand.
Something else noteworthy is that I have not been able to find birth dates for everyone who died between 1940 and 2003 (there are about 55,000 names I couldn't match up or who didn't have birth dates in the death indexes) so those would be a good target for someone else to research if they were so inclined.
Here is another thought as well. I have found memorials of people on Find A Grave (with pictures of the markers) who do not show up in the Forest Lawn online records. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that the online records are not complete. I knew they weren't complete in the sense that there are known celebrities, actors, singers, etc. who are buried at Forest Lawn who are not in the online system. But there are other people who are apparently just "normal folks" who are buried in the cemeteries who don't show up in their system. I don't know if privacy concerns are the cause of this or if something else is going on. I have also found out from other researchers that over time they have found more than a few obituaries that indicate certain people were buried at Forest Lawn but there is no trace of those names in the online system either.
I'm not trying to criticize Forest Lawn here. Their online system is pretty amazing, even if it does have a few warts. I'm just curious as to what is going on. I guess it's also possible that not all the paper records were converted into the online system, but I have no idea. It would also be worthwhile going through the online system and finding errors in the names and dates, I have found a few which I have rectified on the Find A Grave records I have created, but there are more errors that I have just not been able to identify because there are so many records in the online system.
My wife has some horror stories about a cemetery in New York state where the caretaker either took or destroyed all the card file records and then quit or was fired. There are thousands of people buried in this cemetery with no good way to find out who they are short of doing a physical inventory. It's something we may do ourselves when we have more time and money on our hands, but just that one cemetery could take us weeks to document. The reason I bring it up is that this is one of the reasons we have to document these places and those they contain. The dead cannot tell us where they are, we have to find them.
By the way, Forest Lawn is still (typically) adding at least a few hundred people a month, and sometimes several hundred people, to their online system. I haven't figured out a way to query by date only to identify these newer burials and I'm not willing to try and download their entire interment system every month just to catch a few hundred people.
In any event, it seems like there is plenty more to do in terms of documenting Forest Lawn and this has been my take on it.
Problems and Technical Issues
I have been in touch with Jim Tipton at Find A Grave to try and find out if there is a way to import the place data I have gathered into the birth and death fields directly in the memorials on Find A Grave without having to manually edit the memorials. I have been told that this is possible but have not received the geographical database references or instructions on doing this. I am cutting them some slack on this because it is entirely possible that my memorials are going to be the guinea pig for a new procedure and it may be taking some time to work out the kinks. I still think it's worth doing because this will save literally thousands of man-hours of time that it would take to update these memorials. If my memorials all suddenly sprout place names overnight you will know it worked.
As far as duplicate checking goes, so far almost every memorial I have been told was a duplicate after I did the first big upload has only been a duplicate memorial in the sense that there was another memorial for that person on Find A Grave. Only one I have checked so far has actually been in the correct cemetery BEFORE I did my upload. The other memorials were all either in the wrong cemetery or put into Find A Grave without any burial info. The one memorial so far that I have spot checked that was in the right cemetery had a different birth year than mine which is why my memorial could get through the import process without getting dropped out. So far I have not been a stickler on this and quoted the Find A Grave policies, I will delete a memorial of mine if I've been told it is a duplicate. I want people to be able to find their relatives, and if I help them place their memorials in the correct cemetery I am all for it. This project has been a lot of work, I don't demand written credit for finding the right cemeteries people are buried in, I just don't want to get emails that act like I fell down on the job by not checking all of Find A Grave for the names of people when all I am obligated to do is check the cemeteries I am importing names into. Anyway, I won't go off on this any more, I did plenty of that on my Find A Grave user page. Bottom line: I want you to know where your relatives are too, and I will delete my memorials if asked (for the most part).
Gratifying but exhausting. Lots of emails, but lots of thanks. Amazement that this could even be done. And some nice surprises too. Another Find A Grave contributor messaged me back last night after I had transferred a memorial to her, that she had made some updates to the memorial. I checked it out and she had linked a woman to the woman's father who was buried in Illinois. I looked at the cemetery and busted up laughing, it's in the next county over from where one of my grandfathers came from and I have entered people into Find A Grave in that cemetery. I messaged the gal back I had transferred the memorial to with these words: "I'll bet you and I have some relatives in common". Also gratifying has been hearing from distant cousins who I have known on Find A Grave for the last couple of years messaging me with additions, corrections and transfer requests. By helping them find their relatives they are ultimately helping me find relatives as well, albeit perhaps a bit more distant from me than from them.
The only other thing I could ask for now? (Other than the batch place update process, which hopefully is in the works) A batch memorial transfer tool where I could pass a list of memorials followed by Find A Grave member numbers to automatically transfer those memorials to those members. Right now that would make my life a little easier!
The end (for now)
And as a postscript, I want to thank the unsung heroes of Find A Grave, the many photo volunteers and people that are out there working their tails off to find people whose relatives want headstone photos. If you have the plot information when you are adding a memorial, please, please add it to the memorial! You could be saving someone down the line an awful lot of work when they get to a cemetery to take a picture.
Forest Lawn - The Ongoing Sequel
As I write these words, it has been almost six months since I put the plan into fruition with my first big upload to Forest Lawn Glendale. I had no idea how many emails I would end up getting as a result of the project, there have been days where I have gotten over 50 emails in one day just from Find A Grave additions and corrections. I am still transferring out most of the memorials I get additional information on, although some people don't want to maintain them and are specifically requesting on their emails that I not transfer the memorials to them.
The unexpected volume of emails (which, in retrospect, I should have expected) ended up delaying my upload of the other cemeteries in the Forest Lawn chain until this last month, when I did Cathedral City, Covina, Long Beach and Cypress. Between all four of those cemeteries I "only" added another 81,000 memorials. My experience with Glendale and Hollywood Hills served me well, however, as I was able to avoid two time-consuming mistakes I had made on those two cemeteries which were not at all obvious to me at the time.
I did the existing memorial matching correctly on Glendale and as a result created very few duplicate memorials. I did, however, make a different mistake with Glendale. I needed to do an update query on my database and take any names where a woman's maiden name from the death index records matched the middle name from the cemetery records and purge the middle name field. I neglected to do so and as a result I would guess I created about 3,000 records in Glendale where there is a kind of a hiccup and the middle name field duplicated the maiden name field. I am slowly cleaning those up as I find them and people tell me about them, I finally found a query that would enable me to find batches of them at once and that is making it easier to clean them up. It looks strange on screen but I have not been too concerned about those memorials since that particular problem won't stop anyone from finding a memorial with a search, the memorial will just look weird.
In Hollywood Hills I didn't make that mistake but I left out one step in the process of checking against existing memorials and as a result I may have created as many as 2,500 duplicate memorials. I didn't realize how big a problem it was until I started getting emails every week from Carolyn Alves, who had put a lot of memorials in with only the birth and death years. I had inadvertently duplicated a lot of her memorials. Once I realized how bad it was I emailed Carolyn and told her I would figure out a way to find most of those memorials and I did, then I spent several days deleting them.
The Forest Lawn online grave locator system has grown to include over 657,000 interments now. Of those interments I have matched up 427,630 with Find A Grave memorials now (including both the memorials I have created and memorials other people have created). The automated part of what I can do to create memorials has now come to an end so as far as Forest Lawn goes I am not going to be running up bigger numbers the way I was able to over the last several months. I have been over to Glendale quite a bit lately filling photo requests and doing some ground readings. I am being very careful on the ground readings so that I can match the markers up with the lot and space numbers in the sections I am working on. I can now confirm that there are people who are not in the online grave locator system and I have determined what plots they are in. There are not many people who are not in the online system so it is a pretty small group. I have not tried checking any of these names with the cemetery to see if they are in some other database the cemetery keeps but not in the online grave locator.
As I have mentioned before I do not normally enter memorials with no birth date but my ground readings have finally led me to do so, I have found some markers for people who died before 1940 that just list the death date or year and no birth date. I have been entering them without the birth date information. I have also found some people who are in the online grave locater with death dates before 1940 and also with no death date who don't have markers. I am putting those into Find A Grave as well with what limited information I have in case anyone is looking for these people. Obviously their names are not going to come up from a ground reading since there are no markers.
I have gotten some interesting emails over the last several months. A lot of them were from people who were happy I found their relatives or friends, which I always like to hear about. A few were just, well, bizarre. I had one gentleman who accused me of duping his memorial for his grandmother. Try as I might, I was unable to find the memorial that he accused me of duplicating. I sent him back an email and said, "I'm not sure what you're talking about, I havfe not duplicated any memorial for this woman". He emailed me back again, it turned out he had combined his grandmother and grandfather on one memorial. I emailed him back with several reasons as to why what he had done was a bad thing, not only against the Find A Grave naming conventions but also disrespectful to his grandmother. I have never heard back from him again. If he creates a separate memorial for his grandmother and lets me know I will happily delete mine.
I had another one from a woman who used my memorial to find the burial place for someone she had entered years ago. She then edited the burial info on her memorial and moved it into the right cemetery and then sent me an email that said I duplicated her memorial. I emailed her back and said I had the cemetery and that was all I was required to check. I did, however, delete my memorial. She emailed me back again taking me to task for not checking all of Find A Grave for the person I had entered the memorial for. I didn't even bother responding to that email. I have tried a few times to email people who put memorials into the wrong cemetery to get them to fix the memorials and for the most part I am done with it. The odds of getting a memorial changed that is more than three years old seem to drop exponentially with the age of the memorial as people go onto Find A Grave, post memorials, and then disappear. Some of the hard core genealogists just don't get that the Unknown Burial option does not give them carte blanche once someone else finds the cemetery a person is buried in and puts in a completely different memorial. The Find A Grave guidelines actually suggest that if you don't find where someone is buried after 30 days that you delete that Burial Unknown memorial, but of course, no one does so.
Oh and by the way, I do know you can email the Find A Grave admins about nonresponsive memorial owners. It's just keeping track of all that junk is a pain in the ass. I have virtual cemeteries to keep track of all the corrections I have sent out. It's still a pain in the ass.
As of this date, I have given away 3,331 memorials more than I have created or had transferred to me. I am hoping to give away many more. I don't think I will live long enough to get the number I manage back down to a reasonable number again, say, under 10,000.
I have a lot more Find A Grave friends now, which is great! I didn't realize when I did this project it would give me a bit of an entree into the "in" Find A Grave crowd in Los Angeles. Even though I wasn't particularly interested in finding actors and actresses and other celebrities, the net I cast was so wide that I ended up finding a few actors, actresses, cinematographers, assistant directors, etc. Also got some relatives of some celebrities which in a few cases has been pointed out to me and in a few cases I have stumbled upon the information myself.
Every few months when I have some excuse to email Jim Tipton I ask about the batch update procedure for the birth and death places. Still haven't heard anything back. I guess it's still on the wish list for now. I have updated a lot of memorials by hand, it's tedious. For now I guess that's all I can do.
In any event, I don't think I will have anything more of substance to add to this topic. I will keep trying to locate more people in Forest Lawn and keep adding them to Find A Grave. I don't think we will ever get them all, bur as long as there are more to be gotten, I will keep trying (do not, whatever you do, mention the "B" word -- Burnout!).
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© 2012 by Christopher & Michelle Mills