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
Postscript 1 (August 2013)
Postscript 2 (February 2014)
End of 2014 Status Update (December 2014)
2016 - Where We Stand Now
The text below has been written over the span of close to two years. It is not completely chronologically organized as I have jumped in and rewritten some of the older sections with information I did not originally have when I wrote those sections. So if you spot some continuity gaffes and anachronisms, pat yourself on the back for being a careful reader!
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. 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. Still, all in all, it was way better than no data at all.
However, at a certain point I noticed something that was worse than the data throttling, and not at all an obvious problem when you were casually using the Forest Lawn website. 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.
By the way, I have now verified from personal experience that there are many, many burials in Forest Lawn Glendale which do not show up in the online grave locater. Some of them, of course, are actors and other celebrities whose privacy presumably the cemetery is jealously guarding. But many of them are just regular folks. My best guess is that there are several thousand people who are buried there or interred or inurned in the Great Mausoleum whose names are not listed on the website. I was speaking to one of the cemetery employees once about this and they indicated to me that it was possible that as many as 10% of the people who were actually buried in the cemetery were not listed on the website. Because of factors like this, I have become extremely compulsive about the way I take and organize my marker photos, so that I can determine the exact plot location of markers when I find they are not listed on the cemetery website.
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.
Over the last year and a half (from late 2012 through today, in 2014), the scope of "The Project" has been widened, at least at Forest Lawn Glendale, to encompass everyone buried there. With the creation of the Tropico Gravers group and the able help of so many other volunteers who have pitched in, we are making great headway in terms of documenting the cemetery. However, there is still lots more work to do documenting it.
Personally, I am now focusing almost exclusively on Forest Lawn Glendale and I don't know of anyone who is systematically working on the other Forest Lawn cemeteries, with the exception of South Coast Grave Minders, who took over my Forest Lawn Cypress entries and are doing a lot of work in that particular cemetery. I myself made two trips over to Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills in the last year, but other than that the vast majority of my onsite data collecting has involved Forest Lawn Glendale.
Problems and Technical Issues
It has been over two years since Jim Tipton responded to my email and told me that they could in fact do batch updates on place names on memorials. This was an issue because when uploading memorials from spreadsheets or delimited text files there is no way to add the place names in the upload, even if you have that information. I have never heard from Jim Tipton again about this issue, although for a while if I had something else to email him about, which would happen every so often, I would ask about that batch update utility. I guess it's never going to happen, or at least not soon enough that it will do me any good.
My wife has suggested that I try a different tack with them, just email them and ask them if I were to send them a list of memorial numbers of people who, say, died in Los Angeles County, would they be able to update all the memorials on that list with the death place of Los Angeles County? I suppose I could do it, but it left a bad taste in my mouth that the batch update utility was never forthcoming. I guess that's why I haven't pursued it.
There have been a lot of issues with duplicated memorials over the years. The checking on my end was not at fault, with one exception which I described below (under the section The Ongoing Sequel). I was not prepared for five things, all of which have caused problems (at least, as far as I was concerned):
One, I didn't realize that there were a lot of actors and actresses who were buried at Forest Lawn that the cemetery had included, but with their legal last names, not their stage names. Find A Grave put them in under their stage names, so I duplicated literally hundreds of these memorials because I had no way of mapping the legal names to the stage names. Some of those still occasionally crop up and I have to get rid of my memorials.
Two, the fairly staggering number of errors on existing Find A Grave memorials that were placed in Forest Lawn. Literally thousands of memorials had garbled names and garbled birth or death years. As people go through and check out those memorials (which is, by the way, a somewhat herculean task in its own right, and a thankless one to boot), I have been informed of yet more duplicate memorials which I have had to do away with.
I have found a lot of cases also where the death records and cemetery website list the person under a particular first name but their marker shows a different name, either a nickname or what appears to be their middle name. I also duplicated some of those memorials but that doesn't particularly bother me, if someone wanted to have their middle name listed on their marker as their first name, that's just the way it is. First and middle names are a bit fluid anyway, sometimes they get switched at some point after the person gets baptized or christened just because the middle name sounded better, or to avoid having two people in the same immediate family with the same first name.
The paragraph below is a rant that I am going to copy and paste into email replies I am sending. It amazes me that there are people who have been on the site for over 10 years who still don't seem to understand why "burial unknown" memorials are becoming increasingly frowned on and their creation may actually be disallowed in the future because of perceived abuses of the feature.
Third, there must be literally millions of memorials that have been created as burial unknown memorials that are just floating around out there. I never bothered looking for those memorials when I was creating mine because it would have exponentially increased the difficulty of my task of checking for memorials just in Forest Lawn. Virtually every week I am informed of some "duplicate" that I created that is chronologically later than a burial unknown memorial which was, in most cases, moved into the correct cemetery later because someone found the "duplicate" memorial that I created. I just have this to say: People, read the freaking FAQs on burial unknowns, especially the part where it says they should be deleted after 30 days if no cemetery is located! The memorial that is placed in the correct cemetery first is the original memorial, even if it was created 10 years after a burial unknown memorial for the same person that was left as a burial unknown!
That being said, since it is usually family of the deceased that has created these memorials, I almost always delete mine when informed of this. But be very careful when telling me about the "duplicate" memorial I created, especially if that "duplicate" was what enabled you to find the final resting place for your relative. Just be up-front about it, if you created the memorial as a burial unknown and then moved it into the right cemetery, just let me know and I'll delete mine. But telling me I created a "duplicate" with no explanation just punches my buttons, and is likely to result in an angry email reply from me. By the way, I do have an archive table showing which memorials were in Forest Lawn before I created mine, so it's not like I can't find out the truth, either way.
By the way, I am not implying that you shouldn't help people who have put in burial unknown memorials find the correct cemetery and edit their memorials. I have done it a few times and in the cases where the memorial owners are active on the site they are sometimes unbelievably grateful that someone took the time to find the burial location and let them know where the person was buried. I just object to the attitude that some of the memorial owners seem to have of not lifting a finger to find the burial location and then capitalizing on other people's work without being willing to give the other person any credit for finding the actual burial location.
Anyway, end of rant ...
The fourth issue is one that I hesitate to bring up because it involved so few memorials, but I will just as an example of how it can be that no matter how good your idea is and how excellent your execution of a project is, an occasional error will creep in and bite you in the ass. I ran death index queries against over 400,000 names and death dates and in less than a hundred instances more than one record was returned from the death index. I hadn't even thought of this as a possibility, but it happened. It just goes to show that when you are dealing with large enough amounts of data, you have to be prepared for things that you just didn't anticipate.
Because I never even anticipated this as a possibility, I didn't come up with a way of parsing multiple records that were returned by the death index queries, so when I was slicing and dicing the html pages that I downloaded I simply grabbed the first record that was returned and threw away anything underneath that (or possibly I kept the last record returned and threw away everything above it, now I'm not sure which it was).
What that means to you, dear reader, is that I created a few dozen memorials in Forest Lawn where I have assigned the wrong person's information to someone who is buried in that plot, they have the information of someone else who died on the same day with the same name. There are exactly three people on Find A Grave who have found memorials I created with these errors, and I'm one of the three people. So don't get all excited if you find one of the memorials I created that has completely wrong information for the person that is buried there. It's just the Find A Grave equivalent of opening a box of Cracker Jacks and finding a prize that is only included in one out of every 10,000 boxes, because that's about the odds you have of finding one of those memorials.
By the way, don't confuse these very rare memorial mistakes with the normal ones, where the dates on the marker are a little off or some of the names don't match. Those are a dime a dozen, my own experience has indicated to me that as many as 5% of the markers that are out there which have been placed have some kind of significant error as far as the person's name or their dates.
I have almost certainly created more memorials with incorrect information as I widened the Forest Lawn net, as I was going through the Sunrise Slope burials in late 2013 I found a number of people who had no death dates listed on the Forest Lawn website, and I took educated guesses on some of these people based on entries I found in the California Death Indexes. If you find memorials that I or Tropico Gravers created in late 2013 with gross mistakes in them, that's why. We got most of the memorials right, but not all of them. That's part of the reason I have spent so much time working on Sunrise Slope, so I can identify any errors that were made when those memorials were created.
There was a fifth issue I ran into (oh no, not another issue!) which completely flabbergasted me. This also caused me to duplicate quite a number of existing memorials, and again, those are slowly, painstakingly being hunted down and taken care of. Beyond duplicating existing memorials, it caused incorrect information to be placed on thousands of the memorials I created.
No one expects official records to be completely accurate, and boy, after the experiences I have had I certainly don't expect it! But I was floored by an error that appeared in the official California Death Index records. I have documented this in a bit more detail in an article I wrote in 2013, here's a link to that article, which is called Some Genealogy Discrepancy Research Tips.
As far as the California Death Index (1940-1997) is concerned, most of the people whose names are recorded therein who were born in the year 1900, are not listed as being born in 1900, they are recorded as having been born in 1901. This is not an isolated case involving a few records, this was some kind of recording bug that must have affected hundreds of thousands of death records (off the top of my head, the California Death Index lists more than 8 million names, I don't know how to make a good statistical analysis based on that, I'd have to ask one of my friends who is an actuary, but I'm guessing that could easily have corrupted the data for a couple of hundred thousand people). On that scale, since I was creating so many memorials, obviously it had a huge impact on what I was doing with Forest Lawn.
So if you find a memorial I created which shows a birth year of 1901 but there is a marker photo attached which shows a birth year of 1900, the memorial is probably wrong and the marker is right. And now you know why.
Gratifying but exhausting. A lot of emails. A lot of thank yous. Some amazed questions about how it was that I could do such a thing. I liked a comment I got from a distant relative in Illinois when I tried to explain to him how the whole thing was done. "Well, Chris, that's way above my pay grade".
I think it can best be summed up by something I realized in March or April of 2012, after getting up from spending hours doing corrections and answering emails. I turned to my wife and said, "This is the biggest thing I've ever done in my life, this has touched more lives and helped more people than anything else I've ever done and probably will ever do."
Genealogy isn't about the dead, it's about the living. The dead are our links to the past, but the effort to learn more about their lives and what they were like and think about them is as close as we can come to bringing them back to life. The markers really don't do them justice, but when I look at the photos people have posted on some of the memorials the humanity and vibrancy I see in those faces leaps across the years and decades and sometimes I think, "I wish I'd known that person".
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 (at the time I wrote that sentence, I believed that to be the case, but see the notes above under Problems and Technical Issues to read where I did in fact create more duplicate memorials than I was aware of at the time). 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 (that was written as of August 2012). 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. As I noted above, I am compulsive about attempting to track the lot and space numbers because of the people I find who are not listed on the cemetery website. The cemetery does have records for all of these people, as far as I can tell, I don't know if the ones that are not on the website are only on microfiche or what the story is behind that.
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.
(At the time I wrote the paragraph above I was trying to avoid entering people with no dates, however, it has become unavoidable with some of the other projects I have been working on. One of those was creating memorials for every person in the Sunrise Slope section who was listed on the website but who didn't have an existing Find A Grave memorial. There are over 15,000 people buried in that section so after I created those memorials there were several hundred with no dates listed. We are doing a great job getting more information on those people though, if I don't mind saying so myself, and we are getting photo requests and information from a lot of other people on Find A Grave on some of these memorials, which has been a great help).
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 have 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 (Quick note, it took him a year, but he finally did create a separate memorial for his grandmother, so I finally did delete mine, since I had promised him I would).
As of this date (August 2012), 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.
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!).
Postscript - Almost one year later (August 2013)
I was wrong when I said there would not be anything more of substance to add to this topic, it just took almost a year, since I last updated this page on 15 August 2012.
About five months ago some things happened with my Find A Grave accounts (and yes, you did read plural there, which ended up being part of the problem) and I did some serious soul-searching about the site and my future on it. You can read the details of what happened on this page: Why You May See Less of Chris Mills On Find A Grave.
As a result of those events, I ended up giving away most of my memorials, and for the most part no longer create memorials on Find A Grave as "Chris Mills". I do still control the memorials I created in Forest Lawn Cypress (note: I founded another volunteer group to handle Cypress and I gave almost all of my Cypress memorials to that group, after this was written), and I control a number of the memorials I created prior to the Forest Lawn Project, although I did give away the Inglewood Park Cemetery entries I created (Inglewood, California) and Marysville Cemetery (Marysville, Kansas). I still control my family memorials and memorials I created in places my dad's family was from, southern Illinois and southern Indiana.
Some of the things I griped about earlier on this page (such as the batch update utility that Jim Tipton said they could do) I realize are either never going to happen, or not going to happen within the next five or ten years. Tipton knows his audience, and although the site has done some useful things over the last year, like rolling out an enhanced SAC edit system, Jim Tipton is not going to waste his time on something that less than a hundred contributors on the site are going to use. It doesn't matter what he told me, if he didn't have that utility available a year and a half ago when he emailed me, he doesn't have it now, and he's not going to come up with it unless he himself has some need of it.
I am still working on Forest Lawn Glendale (one of the two closest Forest Lawn cemeteries to where I live) as part of the Tropico Gravers, which is a group Find A Grave account that was set up just to handle memorials and photo requests for Forest Lawn Glendale. All but about 50 or 60 of the memorials that were created by me there have been transferred to Tropico Gravers.
If you have any particular interest in Forest Lawn Glendale (i.e., have a lot of relatives there, or live near there and would like to help document the cemetery), please visit the Tropico Gravers page to see what we are up to and how you can help.
I do want to share an interesting and (to me) humorous anecdote about the Forest Lawn website (the website being the catalyst which directly led to the creation of the "Forest Lawn Project"). In the wee hours of February 22, 2013, Forest Lawn switched their website over to a completely different format. What I find humorous about it is that this is exactly a year after I started uploading my Forest Lawn memorials to Find A Grave in bulk. It may just be a coincidence (and it's definitely slamming the barn door shut after the horse has left!) but I wonder if someone at Forest Lawn was monitoring Find A Grave and after what happened on February 22, 2012, if a deadline was set for some changes, and that deadline was achieved. Exactly, no more, no less. I don't know, and it really doesn't matter. But I still chuckle at the thought that their attempts to obfuscate their data didn't work out the way they planned, and they gave up on that idea.
By the way, the new site is an improvement in several ways, but a degradation in other ways. I have found no limit on queries, they let you query as much as you want to now, no 20 queries an hour bullshit any more. Also, they went through a lot of the newer burials and added birth dates for a huge number of those people, which is really good in the sense that I had not gotten most of the people who died after 2002 because I had no way to automatically query those death indexes.
The "degradation" I have seen is that they limit you to three pages of results now instead of four, but the pages only display 12 names instead of 25 names. So the number of results you will see will never exceed 36 names, instead of the 100 you could view before. For the most part it's only really a problem if you're looking up a name like "John Smith". They don't let you query using dates at all any more (probably because that didn't work right on the earlier version of the website) and so that aggravates the problem with common names. You run into something like that and you just may have to call the records office to get help.
The newer website, by the way, is immune to the data scraping exploit that I used before to download the records. But again, as I said before, it's a case of slamming the barn door after the horse has bolted. I'm sure the people that designed the original website told Forest Lawn that it was safe from being captured, but obviously they were wrong. There might be a way to get the information on the current site, but if there is it's beyond my (rather limited) abilities. I don't really care, I already got so much of the data and put it onto Find A Grave that it's kind of irrelevant. And, as I said earlier, I'm really not creating that many memorials on the site anyway. I think I've done exactly one memorial in the last four months, for an acquaintance of mine who passed that I'm trying to get more information on.
I'm rereading what I've written here, and it reads like an epitaph for my involvement in Find A Grave, which is kind of ironic. As useful as the site has been, I still can't get past the flaws in it, and the way the admins can completely run roughshod over the contributors and do whatever they want to, and the fact that Tipton will lie to people to get more memorials on the site, and make promises he can't or won't deliver on. That being said, I still don't see a lot of credible alternatives to the site. If I come up with anything myself to compete with it (even if it only documents Forest Lawn Glendale) or stumble across another site that I think is better, I will put a link to that site on this page.
Yet another postscript, or afterword, or whatever you want to call it ...
The last bit above was posted on 6 August 2013, which is of no particular significance other than it was the 68th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by the USAAF (just had to throw that in, didn't I?). As I write these words, it is 27 February 2014, which is a few days after the second anniversary of the original big upload to Forest Lawn Glendale, and the exact two year anniversary of when I started uploading memorials to Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills. The anniversaries got me thinking about it all again, and I decided to add to this page and rework some of the stuff I had written earlier.
Some interesting things have happened since I last added anything to this page. For one, I finally have a full-time job again after several years of unemployment and underemployment. It is really nice not thinking I am going broke every month.
There have been some interesting developments with Find A Grave, with Forest Lawn, the volunteer groups we are working with, and with my own website.
I had been avoiding the Find A Grave administrators because of some bad experiences I had with them, but last August my hand was forced by a bit of stupidity. I have described an earlier incident when this happened on another page on my site, but I'll rehash it here because so few people have read the other page. Find A Grave has some duplicate merging utilities they can run on individual cemeteries, and on a small cemetery these utilities probably work fine, but on a larger cemetery the utility can lead to some unintended results. They had run one of these utilities in the summer of 2012, and that caused me to send an irate email to Jim Tipton personally. Their merge query was insufficiently granular, which sounds very techie, but let me just explain what it was doing. They were going through all the memorials in Forest Lawn Glendale and matching up anyone with the same first and last name and the same birth and death year and combining those memorials together. I bet some of you can see the problem with this without me even explaining it, even if some of the Find A Grave administrators didn't. At the time they ran this utility in the summer of 2012, there were over 230,000 memorials in Forest Lawn Glendale. How many sets of John Smith and James Jones and Mary Smith and Minnie Martin with the same birth and death years do you think they found? Well, I know of at least 70 different people that they combined into 35 memorials (and those are just the ones I know about, which means there were probably more). They blithely ignored the fact that all of these sets of people whose memorials they combined had different middle initials, different maiden names, different birth and death months and days (but the same years) and were buried in different sections of the cemetery so their plot locations were completely different.
The only reason I understood what they had done was because I had the database I had compiled, which still had the correct information. I had sent the irate email off to Jim Tipton, so I assumed that was the end of the matter. The utility was not run on Forest Lawn Glendale again, so I was happy. I recreated the memorials they had destroyed and fixed the information on some of the memorials they had merged, plus I had to send SACs to some other people whose memorials were corrupted because incorrect information from some of my memorials was merged into theirs. However, I did construct a virtual cemetery on Find A Grave which would be a canary in a coalmine should such a thing happen again, and I recorded the memorial numbers for those entries in a safe place apart from Find A Grave. In August 2013, someone at Find A Grave with more sense of initiative than understanding ran the same merge utility again with the same results, they destroyed and corrupted over 70 memorials again.
I got a list of all the memorial numbers that were affected and I sent an email to AJ Marik, who is one of the administrators who has been with Find A Grave since the beginning, I also emailed it to some of the other generic admin email addresses I had for the site. In the email I explained exactly what they had done and why it was so problematic. AJ got back to me within a day or so and was able to restore the memorials that had been merged into the other memorials. Some of those other memorials were corrupted but because I had a record of what should have been there I was able to correct the memorials I controlled and send SACs on the memorials I didn't control. AJ did comment to me that he looked at the query they were running and it was clear to him that the memorials were for different people and shouldn't have been merged together. So I was happy that someone on the other end was actually listening. But I still keep that virtual cemetery in place in case some misguided soul runs that merge utility again without paying attention to what they are doing.
In any event, that was an experience which could have made me feel worse about the site, but because it was handled well on their end after the initial mistake was made, it did make me feel that there was some hope.
Find A Grave rolled out the enhanced edit system they developed for all the users last year (they had initially just rolled it out to the users who had created a lot of memorials), and that has made life a lot easier for those of us maintaining oodles and oodles of memorials. It's not perfect (I just wrote up a bug I found the other day and sent it off to them) but it's pretty good.
Last December I found something interesting buried in the FAQ section of Find A Grave. It shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise to me, my wife had predicted this might happen several years ago. The announcement mentioned that Find A Grave had been purchased by Ancestry.com in September 2013. I had already noticed that the customer service had improved, but I didn't know what the cause was. It sounds like Ancestry has more resources to devote to Find A Grave, so they were able to raise the bar a bit as far as customer service was concerned. Ancestry is a paid site, but it seems as if they are keeping Find A Grave as a free site. I think they have gauged the user base and realized that if they hide Find A Grave behind the Ancestry paywall that a lot of the volunteer help is going to dry up.
So far I think it is turning out to be a good thing. Find A Grave really needed to be able to add more customer service people and more resources to improving the site, and I think this is a win on both counts.
The new edit system offers a fix to a real problem on the site, that of nonresponsive memorial owners. As far as I can tell, the site admins can "push" edits for users who are no longer active on the site, and they may be able to automatically schedule those edits to be processed, I am not sure. These are the edits that refer to specific fields, i.e., names, dates and places, plot locations, marker transcriptions. The "other" category in the SACs (where you send miscellaneous bio information, links to parents and spouses, etc.) I do not think they can "push" yet, but I have a suspicion that with Ancestry's resources behind them, that capability will likely be added in the future.
This has been immensely helpful in dealing with memorials that were created by contributors who are no longer active on the site, and it addresses a lot of problems that I complained about in the screed that I published last year predicting the doom of Find A Grave.
Forest Lawn keeps tweaking their online grave locater. They did one thing I appreciated and did one thing I hated. They fixed the problem with not being able to display enough names for people with common names, their system now displays a list long enough to show everyone who matches that criteria. You have to match the surname exactly, however, and there are a few problems with that (they have some people in their database who have spaces in the surname and I think you can't find those people anymore), but you can still do a single character on the first name to get more results if you're not sure how the first name is spelled, or just want to see everyone whose first name starts with that character. I just tried it out again with John Smith and got 95 matches, so they fixed the problem they had before where the system could not display enough names for the more common names.
However, since Forest Lawn can't seem to fix something on their site without screwing something else up, the downside is that they took away the exact dates they had listed before, now they just show the year. It may not seem like a big deal, but when you are looking people up in the death indexes, sometimes you need the exact dates. Fortunately, all the people who I downloaded entries for back in 2011 and 2012 have the exact dates recorded in my database, and as more of them get put onto Find A Grave that makes that particular flaw in the Forest Lawn grave locater less and less of an issue.
My only other issue with the Forest Lawn site is that it is just flaky in ways it didn't seem to be before. You will search on a name that you know is there and nothing comes up. Sometimes you have to go back to their main page and start over to get a search to work right. I have no idea why that would be so, but that is just my observation.
As far as Find A Grave volunteerism goes, Tropico Gravers has become the nucleus of a cadre of dedicated volunteers who are doing a great job of keeping the photo requests at Glendale from spiraling out of control. They are also helping me keep the database up to date with another project that has been launched, the Forest Lawn Glendale Section Listings pages on my site.
As I have mentioned before to some people, I have toyed with the idea of setting up a website similar to Find A Grave but with added search functionality. However, the amount of time and resources I would have to devote to such a project is somewhat limited. Somewhere along the line I had a thought about doing a rather more limited project but one that was near and dear to my heart. I decided to start taking all of the names I had recorded for Forest Lawn Glendale, even the ones with no dates and some with (probably) garbled names, and start putting them all online, whether they had Find A Grave memorials or not.
I started doing this back in December. There are around 300 sections in Forest Lawn Glendale, and so far I have only published pages on less than 70 of those sections. Those 70 sections have accounted for almost two thirds of the people who are buried or inurned in the cemetery, however.
The project, while time-consuming, is not impossible, and I should have every section online and published by the end of the year. Some of the sections I keep ending up republishing as I have gotten so many updates for them, even in the scant two months that the system has been online.
The beauty of this system is that I have set it up so that people can email me updates on the names without there even being a Find A Grave memorial created. When I am aware of a Find A Grave memorial I have included a link to it, as well as what other information I have available on the person. The system has been very helpful for some of the people who are doing photo requests, if they are working on one of the sections I have published, as they can print out a list of all the people whose names are listed as being near someone they are trying to get a marker photo of.
Because the listings are sorted (for the most part) by lot and then by space, if you know the name or memorial number of someone you are looking for, you can search on that name or memorial number within the appropriate section and then see what other names are listed next to them. This may help researchers find relatives whose names are garbled in the grave locator, or wives who remarried after the death of their husband who are buried next to their first husband, or daughters who married but whose married names were not known. But, with the links to the Find A Grave memorials embedded within my listings, you can also click on the links to go to the Find A Grave memorials and look at them, or just highlight the number (the links are formatted to display as just the Find A Grave memorial number) and look up that memorial directly in Find A Grave in a different tab without having to close the tab with the section listing page open.
I am also trying to track on these pages which memorials have marker photos posted and which burials are unmarked, this should also be helpful to people who are doing photo requests or just walking the cemetery trying to get marker photos to post but not wanting to get a whole row of marker photos that someone else already photographed.
So, there is a lot of neat stuff going on, and I am more optimistic and positive about getting the cemetery documented than I have been in a long time. The stars seem to have aligned to aid our cause, those of us with cameras are getting better and better gear to work with, and more and more people are aware of our work and trying to help. We may never get everyone at Forest Lawn memorialized (because, after all, it is such a popular place that people are always dying to get in, ha ha) but we can sure give it the old college try.
By the way, I am a lot more relaxed now that I am only personally maintaining between 11,000 and 12,000 memorials. I do take my turn at taking care of the memorials maintained by Tropico Gravers, which is up to over 197,000 memorials now, but a 1/3 share of 197,000 is a lot less taxing than a 100% share of 420,000 memorials. Thanks to my fellow minions at Tropico Gravers (you shall remain nameless, but you know who you are!), the other members of the Glendale working group, the South Coast Grave Minders (who took over my Forest Lawn Cypress memorials) and to Misty & Company, who took over Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills and Forest Lawn Covina, as well as the memorials I created in the Marysville Kansas Cemetery. Thanks also to Lynn Fischer, who took over most of the memorials I created in Henderson County, Kentucky, and B. J. Waters, who took over my memorials in Inglewood Park Cemetery.
End of 2014 Update
It seems to have become a compulsion of mine to add to this narrative as time goes by.
Firstly, the section listing pages I was working on earlier this year were all published by May. I do almost all the processing to turn the data into html in excel and I finally figured out how to write some macros to automate most of the process. Those vastly accelerated the publishing process and so rather than taking all year to publish the pages, I have been able to work on updating the database and republishing the sections that have had the most updates since then, some of the pages have been republished a half dozen times or more in the last nine months.
I was complaining earlier that Forest Lawn had removed the full dates from their grave locator website, presumably out of some kind of privacy concerns (probably also why all the free social security death index sites seem to be drying up). Back in August or September I figured out how to add full dates (where I have them) to the section listings. Unfortunately I have not done much republishing since then so it is taking time to get those updates rolled out. I am hoping that all the pages will get republished within the next two or three months.
I do have some other tweaks to the section listings in mind but frankly not sure when or if they will ever be implemented. I did a test on one of these last year but didn't roll it out. I am slowly accumulating a list within the database of memorials that have marker photos and am grabbing the URLs on Find A Grave that point to the actual marker photos. If I ever roll this out I will be able to display a thumbnail of the marker photos on the section listings and it should be clickable so that the thumbnail can go to a display of the full marker photo.
Don't hold your breath for this one, it is turning out to be an enormous amount of work to accumulate the photo URLs. I still think it would be neat and I might roll it out in stages and just display the thumbnails for the ones where I have the URLs. If I implement this there will be no announcement, it will just start appearing on the section listings.
I have received a huge number of updates over the last year from Kathy Salazar, Romper90069, Jon Reeves, Greg, Ken Lewis, Bernard Johnson, Annemarie Gerace and others. In addition, Ronda Farnsworth has been aiding on special projects (for now going through the pool of unmatched memorials and researching them so we can tie them out to the database or add them to the database as necessary).
I won't go into the details of why I did this, but at the end of October I decided to upload all remaining people I had in the database for Glendale who had a death date but no known memorial. I knew a lot of them were going to kick out and also that I was going to end up creating a lot of duplicates, but I did it anyway. I had about 40,000 names left and around 10,000 of them were rejected by Find A Grave as potential dupes, but over 30,000 were added.
As I expected, even with the Find A Grave duplicate checking, I still created at least several hundred duplicates. They are coming up as people do other searches and I am summarily deleting the new duplicates when found.
Beyond that, the significance is that everyone in Glendale who had a first and last name and a death date on the Forest Lawn grave locator at the time I did the original data scraping (three years ago now, more or less), now has a memorial on FInd A Grave. Perhaps I should say, at least one memorial, since there are still many duplicates out there which are being identified and slowly removed.
The two big challenges I see going forward are identifying the people who had no dates on the Forest Lawn website and either finding existing memorials or researching the names and adding them to Find A Grave. This is going to be a bear since there are still more than 30,000 names in my database without any dates and without identified memorials. In any event, it ensures there will still be things to do for the foreseeable future.
The other challenge is identifying people who were not or are not listed on the Forest Lawn grave locator who are buried there. Some people are going through section by section on some of the older sections (where this problem is most prevalent) and finding people who were not listed and either adding them to Find A Grave or making sure the existing Find A Grave memorials have complete plot information so we can add them to the database, for which we now have a very clearly defined process. Using the procedures we have now added several thousand people to the database who were not listed on the Forest Lawn website when I data scraped it in 2011 and 2012.
By the way, now that the section listings have been out there for a year, I have to say, even though it is a pain to maintain them, they are well worth the time we spent setting them up and maintaining them. Even I, who have direct access to the database, use the section listings when I am doing research on some of the names who appear to be missing memorials. At some point I would like to find someone else with a website (preferably someone else who is heavily into genealogy or some local genealogy society who has their own website) so we can set up a mirror of the section listings on another site. My website is paid for on a year to year basis and I would like to make sure there is some kind of backup in case a fiscal or actual disaster were to befall me.
I wish I could think of something really profound to wrap this up, but I can't. I'm just amazed at how this whole thing has snowballed into something so much bigger. In February 2012 just before I uploaded 190,000 memorials to Find A Grave for Forest Lawn Glendale, there were around 32,000 memorials listed in Find A Grave for the cemetery. Just a few days ago, we passed 311,000, and most of those memorials have specific plot locations, death and/or birth dates, and many have maiden names, links to parents, birth and death places, and other useful information. In addition, over 100,000 of the 311,000 memorials have marker photos. So, all in all, huge progress has been made on the cemetery.
2016 - Where we stand now
I ended that last section on an up note, things seemed to be going really well and a lot of work was being done. Well, in the following year after that, frankly, everything went to hell, partially because of Find A Grave and partially because of the actions of some other people.
I was able to implement some of the new tweaks on the section listings, it was very time consuming but I was adding links to marker photos on the pages and they worked really well once I got all the kinks worked out. That was neat, as I said, but a lot of work to add and to keep accurate.
Around the middle of August last year (2015) the Tropico Gravers account on Find A Grave abruptly disappeared, with no notice or notifications or anything. I emailed AJ Marik at Find A Grave and when he could actually be bothered to email me back he told me that group accounts were no longer allowed on Find A Grave and they were all being shut down. He gave me the option of taking all the memorials that had been maintained by Tropico (210,000 memorials) into my personal find a grave account. I never even bothered responding to that, as I found it completely absurd.
AJ refused to take personal responsibility for the decision, but instead blamed it on unnamed parties at Ancestry.com. When I asked him for some way to contact these people to discuss it with them he never responded to that question.
I sent out a broadcast email within a couple of weeks of that to several hundred people who were on the site whose email addresses I had. I started hearing reports back from them that other group accounts were being disabled. In addition to that, I got numerous responses from people who were very unhappy about the way find a grave was going. Some of these were people who had put in tens of thousands of memorials and photographs onto the site. Many people agreed with what I had said in my email when I stated that Ancestry.com's ownership of Find A Grave was turning out to be a disaster.
In September 2015 I put a note on my contributor page on Find A Grave saying that as of that date I would no longer add memorials or photographs to the site. I don't know if that was what led to a phenomenon I later noticed. Periodically after that point I would find that all my pending edits (even ones I had set to ignore) would all be processed. This is clearly the work of the Find A Grave administration, or some kind of bot they have set up to fulfill this function. It has been sporadic but now it is happening every couple of days or at least twice a week. So now I am no longer even being allowed to check my own edits or decline anything I have a problem with. I recently mentioned that on my contributor page, I keep expecting that verbiage to disappear as it does make find a grave look bad, but apparently they haven't noticed the latest complaint on my contributor page.
The other thing I have to deal with is that Find A Grave essentially orphaned all the Tropico maintained memorials when they deactivated the account, so every week I get questions about having memorials transferred to people that I no longer control. I created a page on my website telling people what to do and now just send them a link to that page. All this because of the ham-handed way find a grave handled those orphaned memorials.
As if all that stuff wasn't bad enough, there was another issue. Romper90069, who I used to work with, had a falling out with Kathy Salazar and me and started trying to sabotage both of us and send us garbage edits and emails and waste our time. It got to the point where both Kathy and I were complaining to the find a grave administration about him. This did apparently no good as I later received an email from AJ Marik saying that there is nothing the contributors can do to each other that will get the site administration to boot someone off, any problems the contributors have with each other they just need to work out between themselves. I don't actually believe that, but I have not bothered trying to go over AJ's head to find someone with some common sense.
In any event, things came to a head when Romper called the Forest Lawn main office and spoke to the management at Glendale and made up a story about Kathy Salazar accosting people in the Great Mausoleum and gave them her name and her contact information. After that Kathy was contacted by Forest Lawn security. Since then apparently the only person who has tried to go into the Great Mausoleum and take any photos has been Romper, although most of his pictures in the GM are so godawful that I am not sure why he even bothers. In any event, most of the Find A Grave photo requests in the GM are not being filled now. I blame find a grave for this as they have taken no action to rein in Romper or suspend his account even after they were notified of these things he has done.
At this point the only person who is claiming photo requests in Glendale is Romper, I don't know if he has driven everyone else away or they are just not bothering because we have had a wet year and some colder than normal weather. We shall see when summertime rolls around. I do know for a fact that some of the people who were working on Glendale have stopped because of their disgust with the way the find a grave administration is running the site, as well as some who were just creeped out by people like Romper who were hanging around the place.
Since I knew Romper was using my Glendale section listings and he seemed to be driving other people away from working on the cemetery, back in December I reluctantly took the Glendale section listings down from my site. Since then I have had one person complain they were gone, I offered to send him the HTML files directly if he wanted to use them, but never heard back from him again.
I would like to publish this stuff again somewhere else, but am not planning on doing it in a form where Romper can use it again, or at least not easily. It's a shame one bad apple can do so much damage, but that is the way it is.
I am still researching people in the various Forest Lawn cemeteries, but for the time being I am just using the information to update my database. Almost none of it is being added to Find A Grave. I still help individual family members and researchers who contact me, my fight is not with them. So the "Forest Lawn Project" still continues, and I do want to disseminate this information when I can, I just won't be using Find A Grave to do so.
As for Find A Grave, I think that eventually their actions and their attitudes will catch up with them and people will wake up to the damage they have done to the contributors and the information that is being put on the site. The way the edit system is being used now it is a disaster, anyone can come along and start vandalizing memorials quite easily, some from ignorance but eventually I think some will do so from malice. And the more the site administration continues to mistreat the contributors I think they will turn some of those contributors into the vandals I am talking about. And that will make the site even worse.
Ancestry.com seems to think they can take the work of untold thousands of volunteers and profit off that work, but then treat those same people like dirt. I just hope it bites them in the ass one day hard enough that they really notice.
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