Saturday, January 24, 2015

Does this couple in Missouri own your relatives on Find a Grave, too?

Finding this was accidental, I swear!
One of my favorite actors is David Tennant, and during an interview he once told the story of a man who asked him for his autograph... in the shower. David Tennant signed the autograph simply to get back to what was left of his shower in peace, but not before making a point I have always remembered.

If you have to explain to someone why their behavior is inappropriate, are they really going to understand it?

Nevertheless, I'm going to go ahead with what I'm hoping can be a moment of constructive reflection for everyone who reads this. And if you're guilty of anything like what I'm about to describe, I want you to take an honest look at yourself. Realize that you are no different than the guy asking for someone's autograph while they're in the shower, and you simply don't know it yet.

A Disturbing Discovery

My husband's father just passed away, and we returned to our neighboring hometowns to visit with family and participate in the funeral. We are both genealogists, and we take what we do seriously. In the grand southern tradition from whence we both descend, we didn't bat an eye at taking a picture of the body in the casket. I made sure I got two shots of the pall bearers, so we could see all six of them. I kept extra programs and funeral cards. Suffice it to say, we need no assistance when it comes to remembering our dead.

His funeral was on Monday. I asked my husband if he wanted me to create the Find a Grave memorial on Tuesday. I created it on Wednesday after we arrived home--only to discover that one had already been created for him last week.

I couldn't believe it. I showed the memorial to my husband. He told me he didn't like the picture, and I recognized it instantly as the one his mother had given to the newspaper. He didn't need to tell me. I watched him tear our house apart looking for the perfect pictures to bring to the funeral. I watched him edit family photos for more than two hours to bring as a perfect offering of his father's memory.

I had to be the one to tell him that his father's memorial page was owned by Lyle & Marsha, a couple in Missouri he has never met. I watched the anger spell out in unspoken words across his face, as it dawned on him that total strangers had taken one of his father's most public memorials away from his family. I had to explain that we would have to ask them--ask them!--to transfer the memorial to us, and they would be under no obligation to cooperate. As his wife, I saw his anger smolder into quiet disgust with the human race. It was the last thing on earth I wanted him to feel after losing his father.

Upon closer inspection, I discovered that Lyle and Marsha created the memorial with the information published online in my father-in-law's obituary. Someone else then came along with the copied image from the newspaper, and added it to the memorial. The obituary is posted in its entirety on the memorial, which I have never liked for aesthetic reasons. The end result is a memorial that neither of us had any control over, and is in no way what we would have wanted. Which is ironic, given that Lyle and Marsha's stated goal is to "present a memorial that will please the family."




I would ask how they could ever hope to do that, given that they don't even know us. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Why should this couple be allowed to create memorials for people based on what is printed in obituaries, before the body is even buried? From a genealogical standpoint, this is unadulterated sloppiness on their part. How can they know what was printed in the obituary was accurate? I have half a dozen obituaries that have incorrect burial information on them, and I shudder to think what someone like Lyle and Marsha could have done with them.

How many memorials have they created with false information on them--simply because they have never met the family, they do not live in the area, and have no clue what they're talking about?




And more to the point, the last time I checked the website was called Find a Grave--not Find an Obituary.

So who are Lyle and Marsha?

I've been watching this couple very closely. I've watched their number of memorials created/managed continue to skyrocket. Find a Grave publishes their user statistics on their public profile. In 3 years, 11 months, and 3 days they have created 71,106 memorials. That's roughly 18,186 a year, more than 1,500 a month. This translates into 50 memorials created each day.

I want to draw attention to a few elements of their public Find a Grave contributor profile. They reveal so much more about themselves through their own words than I could ever hope to do with mine.

"If we have done a memorial for one of your loved ones, feel free to request their memorial. However, we transfer according to FAG guidelines. Please be kind when requesting. We will not reply to hateful, demanding requests. This is a hobby that we enjoy, and we will not allow anyone to add stress or aggravation to something we enjoy."

Clearly, Lyle and Marsha have been this intrusive, offensive, and disrespectful to other people's grief before. It isn't in the nature of sane, rational people to be angry with strangers. If this is an experience they find themselves having frequently, it means they're doing something that needs to be corrected. The appropriate response is NOT to minimize the the feelings of people they've hurt by accusing them of being "hateful" or "demanding." By saying they refuse to feel "stress or aggravation" over the pain they cause, they're pretending like they've done nothing wrong. They're saying their feelings matter, and those of others simply do not.

They demand respect, but they give none.




Let's talk for a minute about the Find a Grave guidelines they say they strive to uphold. This is the policy Find a Grave follows in these disputes over memorials.

If the memorial in question is a direct relative within four generations (siblings, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents) to you and the original submitter is not direct family, then they must transfer the memorial. If they refuse to transfer your relative to you, contactinfo@findagrave.com and we will work on it for you.

Lyle and Marsha are not direct relatives of my father-in-law. According to the guidelines, they are required to transfer the memorial to me and my husband. Seeing as they manage almost 80,000 profiles, I don't see them getting around to my transfer request any time soon. Maybe they'd have a little more time for courtesy if they weren't trying to inflate their statistics fake internet points so aggressively. So I've already escalated the matter to Find a Grave. They've transferred my case over to their partners at Ancestry.com, and I'm *in the process of working together with them to have the memorial deleted.

By putting us into a situation where we have to reach out to them, on their terms, Lyle and Marsha intruded on our peace of mind. They are no less oblivious and selfish than David Tennant's naked autograph seeker. They could not have imposed on us more--even if they showed up to our hotel room, walked in on my husband in the shower, and asked for his autograph. The result is identical. To invade on someone's private, vulnerable space, for the sake of a record that doesn't even belong to them--that's what they've done to our family. Whether they will acknowledge their wrong or not, that is how they have made us feel.




While there is no law or user agreement that may forbid what they're doing, it's certainly against common sense and basic human decency. If nothing else, I hope they will ponder on the immense joy they clearly feel using Find a Grave, and recognize that they have taken that away from my husband. That may be the only way for them to comprehend their actions, because reason and user agreements certainly cannot help them.

What I Have Learned

Because of this entire situation, I've come up with some personal guidelines for how I'm going to create Find a Grave memorials from now on. I went through all of my created profiles and saw I had the presence of mind never to do any of these things. But I will still treat them as my personal policy from now on.

I will not create profiles for adults who have been deceased less than a year. For infants, children, and minors, I will not create a memorial until they have been deceased at least five years. I want to give ample time for families to grieve, and hopefully create the memorial themselves.
Wherever possible, I will not create memorials for my family based solely on information provided from obituaries or death records. I will find the testimony of someone who has been to the cemetery, seen or photographed the headstone, was present for the funeral, or visit the grave myself before creating the memorial. 
Any memorial I create for someone else's family will be from a visit I made to a cemetery, not from printed records. 
If an obituary names living people, I will not post it to a memorial. Just because someone's name was included in an obituary does not mean they want their names associated with the deceased. While this wasn't the case with my father-in-law, it definitely was with my own father. Some people are also concerned for their privacy, and it's no one's place but theirs to decide how their name is used on the internet.
I will not withhold memorials from living family members for any reason.  
I will remove a memorial if they ask me to do so, without argument or requiring an explanation.
I will respond to any requests made of me by living family within 24 hours, wherever possible.  
I will not copy photos from other websites to publish to Find a Grave, unless I have permission or they are public domain images.

Have you had any crazy experiences with Find a Grave volunteers? What are your personal policies on how you contribute to Find a Grave? Let us know in comments!



*UPDATE: Thanks to the fine folks at Find a Grave/Ancestry.com, Lyle and Marsha's memorial has been deleted. I said on Twitter this morning that Find a Grave staff are so awesome, they deserve costumes and a theme song. This was what immediately came to mind...

When Marsha and Lyle
tryna cramp yo' style
Who you gonna call?
 Find a Grave!

When they swipe yo' dad
 Make you really mad
 Who you gonna call?

Find a Grave!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Genetic Genealogy for Beginners, Part 1

As many of you recall, I took the AncestryDNA test a while back and I'm still trying to make it work for me as much as possible. I said I was going to follow up on the experiences I've been having at GEDmatch.com, which so far has been a great experience for me. Although I still haven't made any amazing discoveries in terms of matches, I'm well on my way to making that happen.

The more I've learned about genetics, the more I realize that I needed someone to explain the important fundamentals to me--information that, in my experience, is not easy to find.




Because of that, I've decided to make a video series on the basics of genetic genealogy. Be sure to Like, Comment, Subscribe, and Share!

If you're thinking about taking a DNA test, regardless of the company you test with, there are some important things you need to know. I cover these in my Part 1 video in more detail, but here are some of the facts you most need to understand before (or after) buying a test.

  1. You need to start with at least two tests, one for you and one for another person in your family. Why? Because DNA does not come pre-color coded according to what came from your mom or dad. If you want to have any clue at all about which side of the family your cousin matches come from, you need to know which parts of your DNA are maternal and paternal. Have one of your parents tested with you. If that's not possible, try another close relative (grandparents, cousins, anyone who can clearly comes from one side of your family.)
  2. If you think a cM is a centimeter, or a SNP (pronounced "snip") is a haircut, you're in a lot of trouble. These are the two most important concepts in measuring how someone is related to you. Never heard of 'em before? Check out my video above to get started.
  3. There is no royal road to cousin matching. You have to learn science, do calculations, and study up on what it all means to do genetic genealogy. You have to learn about your matching tools and how to use them. Your testing companies may match you to other people, but until you know how it all works it's all going to be Greek to you. If you want to solve your family mysteries, it doesn't just happen like a shaky leaf hint. It takes work. If you don't want to invest the time to learn and collaborate with other people, genetic genealogy is not for you.
And as a final piece of advice: start a new tree and get rid of the privacy settings. Your test alone isn't going to tell you very much. You have to work together with other people, comparing notes with them and trying to figure out how the two of you are related. They can't help you if they can't see your tree or communicate with you. And while you're creating a second tree, try to forget everything you thought you knew about your family. Follow the biological lines as far as you can. Don't put in step parents or adopted parents anywhere in that tree. It will only make your life--and the lives of those who want to help you--more difficult.

Have any questions about where to get started? Leave them in comments and I'll answer them as I continue to genetic genealogy series!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Getting Started: Census Shenanigans

The family history of most people is made of hundreds of census records. Therefore, finding people in a census is an essential fundamental skill. Which is why it can be a little embarrassing when it proves to be difficult. It's not like I've done this 84,000 times...


WHY CAN'T I FIND YOU?!

But that's the thing about genealogy. Even when something is a fundamental skill doesn't mean you ever stop learning how to do it better. There are some of us that like to call ourselves experienced, but we're all still improving the same basic skills.

Defining the Problem

This round of census trouble is with my 2x great grandfather Pomp Fenity. You may recall that I did a video about him and his wife Annie on my Youtube channel. In 1924 he lost his wife to measles, and before long he lost his farm and his family to the Great Depression. His children were sent to friends, relatives, and jobs outside of Virginia, and he spent the next several years working for the Works Progress Administration.

What this translates into for me is no longer looking for a single family unit, but him and his surviving children scattered to the wind. I still have no idea where my great grandmother was during the Great Depression, or her father Pomp. But I have most of the siblings now, and just filled in one more piece of the puzzle for missing 1930 and 1940 census appearances.

Where was Pomp in 1940? 

Living as a lodger in the Pigg River District of Pittsylvania County, Virginia.

1940 U.S. census, Pittsylvania County, Virginia, population schedule, Pigg River, enumeration district (ED) 72-31, sheet 8-B, household 124, "Pomp Finnety"; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 17 Novamber 2014); citing NARA microfilm publication T627, roll 4284.

What exactly was my error that kept me from finding this record sooner? The variation of his surname spelling isn't new, and I've seen more obtuse variations than this one. His age is also off by 10 years, which is a much larger range than I am accustomed to searching.

But my crucial error was one of insanity. I was searching over and over again with the same one website, finding nothing, and somehow expecting different results each time I tried. I was relying entirely on Ancestry.com to either find the record for me in shaky leaf hints, or to find it by playing around with enough sliders in their search field.

By the time I provided enough search parameters to weed out thousands of records irrelevant to me, I also weeded out the one thing I was trying to find.

Using HeritageQuest

The first time I tried something different was when the breakthrough happened, and it was with a website I think no one doing US research should ever overlook.

When I get into a census record jam, I like to use HeritageQuest. It's a website that is free to most Americans through their local state library system. Some of them even have remote access pages where you can log in with your library card number on your home computer.

Why do I use it when I have subscriptions to fancy sites like Ancestry.com and MyHeritage? Because its census search feature is simple, exhaustive, and the results are still relevant. It's a balance that I've never seen in another website, and I wish more of them would learn something from what HeritageQuest is doing so well.




By typing in Given and/or Surname, census year, and a state, I can see every instance of my search term in that state, broken down by county. I can start with the county where I'm accustomed to finding my ancestor, and see all the occurrences of his name. If I don't find him there, I can quickly change to a different county, or even to the whole state.




It places all of the results in an alphabetical list by Surname, but I can change it to sort by all of the options displayed in the drop-down list. So if I want to check possible name variants, I can sort by name. For people with common names, it's helpful to sort by age and narrow your results that way. Birthplace can also be an important filter.

Jargon on the Census

Overlooking information on any record is an excellent way to cheat yourself out of important information. I talked about this in my most recent video on Deciphering Jargon, and the same ideas apply to census records as well. Never pass over numbers, codes, or abbreviations. They can provide an impressive amount of important information.

A great census tool I discovered recently for decoding this type of information was created by Steve Morse. There are several series of codes on the 1910-1940 censuses, and you can look them up with their series of drop-down menus. The employment code ended up being useful to me because 988 V9 2 is for someone working in construction who is paid by the government. It was a useful confirmation that he was still a part of the WPA, without requesting his (very expensive) file from the National Archives.

Those codes can be an excellent way of determining who the informant was for the information as well. Pomp's education code on the 1940 census was "90" which means his education level is unknown and he's over the age of 6. Because I know he was literate enough to read and write, I know he attended school. Therefore, if the information is unknown it was because he wasn't the one providing it.

What dead ends have you had searching through the census? What are some of your favorite tools to work through census records?