Municipal portal lets users search for graves

A West Coast municipality has unearthed a self-service application fit for local users and those around the world: the ability to electronically search its local cemetery for specific graves.

The City of North Vancouver launched

its Online Cemetery Locator program earlier this year. Users can access the tool through its city map, which it built using ESRI’s ArcIMS software. There they can search by date of birth, date of death, name and birthplace. The map, which also has a zoom-in capability, pinpoints the exact location of the deceased within the cemetery.

Cindy Turner, the city’s director of information technology, said the Cemetery Locator represents the first time the municipality has allowed citizens to go through its firewall to an active database.

It was a matter of adding specific tombstone data to existing maps. “”We could kind of pilot this kind of application on the public Web without causing a great deal of work or it being out of date,”” she says.

The city hired a student to enter a lot of the back-end data on gravesite information to populate the database. Initially, Turner says, the Locator was developed as an internal project to assist the clerks who regularly field questions from the public. “”She’d spend two hours looking through the paper records to find out if so-and-so were buried there,”” she says. “”And that was subject to her missing it, because, you know, that’s not fun.””

While the Cemetery Locator has obvious uses for local residents, Turner says she sees it as an aid to remote genealogists developing family trees.

“”It was really a good service to the public and probably one of the most far-reaching services we could offer,”” she says. “”We’ve already got property tax and all those things up there. That’s great, but it’s not interesting to anyone across the ocean.””

Judith Argent, who specializes in genealogy research at the Cloverdale branch of the Surrey Public Library, says online tools have become critical for this purpose.

“”If you go into most of the genealogy pages for each province, they’ll have a section where you can look up cemetery recordings,”” she said. “”It might not be quite as elaborate as others, but if you know something about where these people are, usually you can get into the district, the name of the cemetery and on and on.””

Though the geospatial data was a useful add-on to the North Vancouver portal, Turner says the government put limits on how many details it released to the public.

“”Obviously there’s no billing information or next of kin address,”” she says. “”Just the very basic information, which for most people, that’s exactly what they’re after.””

Web-based genealogy tools have become so common now, Argent says, the process is becoming intuitive.

“”They’re really smart on the Internet. They do keyword searches on their own, and the find things by accident,”” she says.

Like many municipalities, North Vancouver has a number of unmarked graves, including a pit where stillborn children were buried many years ago. Obviously, says Turner, this information isn’t included in the Cemetery Locator.

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