It is no secret that I love volunteering for BillionGraves. I love that with so little effort and just a donation of my time, I can provide a resource for thousands of people searching for a record for their ancestor or loved one. Pure and simple. It’s me, my iPhone and a cemetery. Step. Point. Click. Move to the next headstone. Step. Point. Click. And yet, it is not as simple as that. There is the dash.
What do I mean by “the dash?” I am sure by now you have heard it said that we all have two dates and a dash, and we better make that dash count. What about those dashes I pass moment by moment as I individually photograph each grave? Those dashes meant something to a lot of people. What happened in those dashes affected the lives of others and should be remembered.
Over the past years I have photographed over 150 thousand headstones. That is a lot of memorials. Do I stop and think of each person as I move along? Truthfully, no. I sometimes zone out because the repetition of the process over a two to five hour timeframe can lead to one’s mind wandering. But I do try to focus. To me, it’s a matter of respect.
Each headstone has a name. Sometimes, as I pass by, I state the name aloud and say hello. I notice the religious symbol on the stone. I read the epitaph. Sometimes there is a spouse buried there, as well. Two feet to the left may be an infant child. My heart melts and I get emotional as though suddenly this is my family and I am sharing in the loss.
There are the feelings of pride, too. I have photographed in Arlington, Quantico and Gettysburg. I have passed soldiers of all ranks and station. Purple Heart recipients. Some who died in war and others who lived very long lives. In my heart, I thank them all for their service. I say a silent prayer.
I see mementoes on or beside the headstones. A case of beer and a pack of cigarettes. Teddy bears. Matchbox cars. A rock. A dime. Sometimes even a black box, holding who knows what? I don’t look inside. It’s sacred. All memories relating to the dash.
And sometimes I meet the families. Typically, when I photograph a cemetery and mourners come to pay their respects, I will stop photographing. I move away or go somewhere else in the cemetery so as to give the visitors privacy. Sometimes I am so focused I don’t see the family members walk towards me, curious as to what I am doing here. Did I lose a loved one, as well? Did I know their father? Mother? Friend? No. I am here for record preservation purposes only. After a brief explanation of why I am in the cemetery, the real interaction begins. The family members want to share their experiences about their loved ones. They want the stories told. I’m here to preserve the dates. They are here to remember the dash.
What I do is easy. It’s just me, the iPhone and a cemetery. Step. Point. Click. Move to the next headstone. But as volunteers for any genealogical project, may we pause to remember for whom we are doing this work? What we do goes beyond record preservation. May our work reflect our respect for the name engraved on the stone. They are more than just a name and two dates. They were the dash.