Page 16


historians about cemetery preservation, she presents a list of the major threats facing Texas’ dead citizens, including livestock, encroaching civilization, all-terrain vehiclesand the Internet. These days, most people setting out to learn more about the resting place of a long-lost ancestor use search engines, not copper probes. When it comes to popularity on the Internet, genealogy famously rivals pornography. Over the last decade, many genealogy websites have sprouted sections devoted to the documentation of old cemeteries. Tombstones can often help a genealogist retrace a family’s history. But collectively, tombstones are a vulnerable data set, open to the elements and prone to fading with each passing year. Since approximately 1997, volunteers with the Texas Tombstone Projectpart of a national effort organized by have set out to transcribe every headstone, in every cemetery, in every county in Texas and post the information on a publicly accessible website. Recently, with the advent of cheap digital cameras, the mission has shifted toward photographic documentation. Someday in the not so-distant future, every tombstone in Texas will likely exist in duplicate, one dirty version and one digital. Renee Smelley, who until recently volunteered as a photography manager for the Texas Tombstone Project, says that approximately 4,500 cemeteries have been surveyed so far in Texas and that the project is accelerating. She says that a few years ago, she would receive about 50 photographs a month. By last year, she was receiving 50 new tombstone portraits every week. According to Smelley, her volunteers occasionally run into ornery cemetery directors, like Little, who try to keep them at bay. But resistance, she says, is useless. The volunteers will get the information one way or the other. To wit: she recounts the story of a genealogist who, after being banned from a cemetery, sat outside the entrance and transcribed the tombstones from afarthrough a pair of binoculars. “The information on tombstones is just like any other public record,” says Smelley. “Just like marriage records, divorce records, or land records.” Little, for one, emphasizes that in Texas death certificates are confidential for 25 years and birth certificates for 75 years. Little believes that posting photographs of tombstones on the continued on page 20 Teri Little next to one of her charges Photo by Felix Gillette JULY 8, 2005 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13