Monday, February 06, 2006

Database of Death

(Sacred Heart of Mary Cemetery, Sweetest Heart of Mary Parish)

While my husband was working on loading software on my new work computer I spent the weekend working on the Sweetest Heart of Mary cemetery/death records database. I've been working on it for a while now, a couple... three years or so. I don't really remember when I started. I volunteered to work on this project for the parish. They could really benefit from having their records in digital format in a searchable in a database. I got a copy of the Excel file that had been compiled by some folks in the PGSM. They walked the parish cemetery and recorded inscriptions and locations of all the gravestones in the "old section" of the cemetery (with plans to continue in the "new section" sometime in the future). This was a huge task complicated by the fact that many, many of the gravestones' inscriptions had been worn away over time. Some of the stones had been damaged as well. But due to a fire at the cemetery office back in the 1960s, there were no records of who was buried in the cemetery. So compiling a database of gravestones seemed like a good place to start and the folks who did it, did a good job considering what they had to work with.

The next step was to deal with the parish death records back at the rectory. As people's funeral services were performed at the church, they were recorded in several large ledger-type books. The ledger books were recopied at some point and not all the information one would have liked was recorded in the first place. The amount and type of information changed over time. Some entries have much more detail than others. One very important piece of information that was not recorded with any regularity at all was the name of the cemetery the deceased was buried in. One would presume that most of the funerals were for parish members and that they would have been buried in the parish cemetery. But further investigation shows that many folks were buried elsewhere. Fortunately, I was able to get a copy of these transcribed records from a PGSM member who'd transcribed them some time ago for genealogical research.

When I attempted to merge the cemetery database with the transcribed records database I made some interesting observations. Not only were parishioners whose funerals were held at Sweetest Heart often buried in other cemeteries (the names of which were often not noted in the entry), but many, many of the gravestones recorded by the PGSM members had no corresponding funeral record in the death ledger book. Now, there are some time gaps in the parish death books but not enough to account for the number of graves with no corresponding funeral record. So the logical assumption is that many folks buried in the cemetery were from other parishes. With the cemetery records having been destroyed years ago, there's no feasible way to determine what parish someone might have been buried from.

So what I had to work with were relatively newly recorded (complete with some typos along the way I presume) gravestones that were time worn and damaged with inscriptions very often difficult to read. And recopied (with it's own set of transcription errors) death book entries transcribed and typed (gotta assume there were more transcription errors and typos here too) from books with some time gaps here and there. I needed to find a way to combine these two databases and continue to enter additional records from death book entries not yet entered in a database and additional gravestone records not yet compiled from the "new section" of the cemetery. I sometimes wonder what I was thinking to volunteer to take this task on. If we were only talking about a few hundred graves or funeral records, it might be possible (time consuming, but possible) to try to verify the information in these records for accuracy. But with over ten thousand records between these two databases it is virtually impossible to think about verifying/clarifying questionable record information. The best I could hope to do is to combine the two databases (with their various typos and transcription errors) into one, merging records where possible, and continue entering more records as my time allowed. This has been my quest for the past couple... three years or so. Or more truthfully, this is one of the projects I voluntarily work at in my spare time ;-)

So now that I've given some background about this monumental task I've taken on, I'll fill you in on where I'm at with it. I combined the two databases into one, entered additional death book entries from 1934 through 1945, and just this past weekend passed the half-way point of matching and combining gravestones to death book entries where possible. I'll just keep plugging away at it and hopefully one of these days I'll be able to share with you the news of its completion.