Friday, May 13, 2016

Do QR Codes Have A Place In Cemeteries?

In the late 1970s, there was a cemetery my school bus passed every day.  One of the headstones that faced the street displayed a photograph of the child buried there.  At the time, I found the image unsettling and would avoid looking at the grave when we passed by.  I’m not sure why it bothered me.  I had spent many hours in cemeteries doing research with my genealogist parents, but as a 12 year old, it was beyond my understanding of why a picture would be put on a headstone. 

Today, I am a volunteer with an online records preservation site called BillionGraves.  As a volunteer, I visit cemeteries throughout the world and photograph headstones which later are transcribed and made available with GPS coordinates for individuals searching for their ancestors.  Every once in a while I come across a headstone that displays a picture of the deceased.  It no longer unsettles me as it did when I was a youth.  It is a wonderful reminder that the individual buried there is more than a name and two dates etched in stone.  But, just as I have adjusted to seeing the faces of the deceased on headstones, a new technology has emerged providing information beyond the imagery and inscription. And while we live in the age of ever advancing technology, not everyone is comfortable with this new addition to the headstones -- the QR code. 

If you are not familiar with the term QR code, it is a digital square box that can be scanned to obtain information regarding the item it is attached to.  So why place a QR code on a headstone?  Who is doing the scanning and how? 

QR Codes on Headstones

QR codes on headstones began to make their appearance within the last decade.  Who started the process is debatable.  There are a variety companies in the United States that claim they were the first, however, the earliest reference I was able to come across is Quiring Monuments, a Seattle based company who placed their codes on headstones in 2011. The idea was to provide additional information regarding the deceased, such as an obituary, family stories, and any other documentation of historical importance.  A virtual records repository, if you will.  Anyone researching the individual would simply scan the QR code with a smart phone, and the photographs and documents pertaining to that person would be made available through a site the family or cemetery administration managed.  

Anyone who has researched family history will tell you that courthouses burn, documents fade with time, and often information is misplaced, mislabeled or lost.  A stone with an etched QR code would provide an opportunity to have access to those documents even after the original records can no longer be found.  For genealogical purposes this seems like a wonderful idea if you know who the individual is, where they are buried, and know the QR code is there.  

Breaking Away From Tradition

Cemeteries have long been a place where people go to pay their respects to a loved one.  Genealogists visit cemeteries to locate ancestors and retrieve vital information etched on the stone.  It’s all about the family and preserving the memory of those who have gone before.  The expectation is that the cemetery be peaceful, if not sacred.  Have we lost sight of what the intent of those visits are, or have we advanced the opportunity to keep the memory of our ancestors alive and in greater detail?

There was a time when placing an image on a gravestone was considered controversial.  Jewish law and Christianity prohibit idol worship, and so many people rejected the idea of adding a photograph to their loved one’s grave fearing that the prayers said at the grave site might be misconstrued and seen as praying to the deceased. 

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

                                                                                    Exodus 20:3-4

But while some people rejected the idea of adding images citing religious beliefs, others begged the question, “Are we visiting the cemetery to visit our dead or to pray to God?”  If the intent is to visit and keep the memory of the loved one alive, then why not a photograph?  And if not a photograph, why not a QR code?

I recently asked a group of friends what they thought of QR codes on cemetery headstones.  While some people felt it would be a wonderful way to learn about people buried in a cemetery, others felt that bringing technology into the cemetery would be "tacky."  Most agreed that tying information regarding the individual and the headstone to some sort of database would be sufficient.  But we have that already, don’t we?  Sites such as BillionGraves and FindAGrave do just that.  They have taken the image of the headstone and attached with it further documentation regarding the deceased. 

So what to do with the QR codes?  One individual suggested that QR codes be allowed if the family members request one.  When sites such as BillionGraves or FindAGrave digitize the headstone, the QR code could be attached, providing the viewer with additional information on their ancestor.

And what about photographs displayed on headstones?  While some people felt it was a nice idea, many others did not, pointing out that too often the images etched into the stone do not turn out well, and that the digital photographs inserted in the stones fade and are destroyed by the elements of nature.

 Let me hear from you! 

What are your thoughts regarding cemetery headstones?  Should headstones only display names and dates, or should we allow technology to take a place within the graveyard?