Tomb hunts made easier with searchable database

 
Ever wonder where your great great grandfather was buried?


If he is interred in one of the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ 13 Catholic cemeteries, there’s a good chance the exact location of his tomb is just a click away.
 
A new “Burial Search” feature on the website of the New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries Office invites users to enter all or part of a decedent’s name into a search bar to find the location of his or her final resting spot.
 
“Whatever burials are in our database can be pulled up – the less information you put in, the more names it’s going to retrieve and you will have to scroll down,” said Sherri Peppo, executive director of the Cemeteries Office. “The main reason we put (the searchable database) out there was for people to find the burial location of the person they’re looking for. They can at least search and see if the person is even buried in our cemeteries.”

Easy to get started

The search feature, available on the homepage of www.nolacatholiccemeteries.org, offers free and unlimited access to the Cemeteries Office’s burial database, with records stretching back as far as the 1700s.
 
No user name/password registration is required to use the service, with researchers simply invited to enter the name of the person of interest. They can select a specific cemetery in which to search, or select “all cemeteries” to widen their hunt to encompass all 13 cemeteries.
 
After pressing “search,” all hits connected with the entered name are instantly displayed, each accompanied by the location of the person’s burial site, down to the walkway or avenue and lot number within the given cemetery. The death date, burial date – and in some cases, the birthdate – also show up in each result.
 
Of course, because the “John Smiths” of the world will always outnumber those who have more unusual names, educated guesses may come into play, Peppo said.
 
“If there are multiple people with the same name, (researchers) may be able to identify the person they’re looking for by the year of death, or they might be able to narrow it down once they see the name of the cemetery – if they have some idea of which cemetery they’re buried in,” she said.
 
Because the search feature is very literal, those looking for a grave location might have to enter more than one spelling of the surname to have success. Clerical errors made over the decades can stymie searches, as can spellings of family names that changed from one generation to the next, due to the pressures of anglicization, notes Peppo.
 
“You could even have people (interred) in the same grave and their last names might have variations in the way they’re spelled,” she said, recalling a recent gravesite search in which two full-blooded brothers spelled their names differently.

Electronic time saver

Peppo hopes that putting these searches – even the initial stages of them – into the hands of the public will assist families while saving her staff valuable time. She said her office is inundated daily with requests from individuals conducting genealogical research or who want to locate their family’s tomb, be it for their own future burial needs, or simply to visit their loved ones and tend to their graves.
 
“We encourage families to use (the electronic search feature), because if they have to contact our office, we have to do a physical search and there could be a fee involved,” Peppo said, noting that while the database is fairly comprehensive, there are some gaps. For example, the office at St. Patrick Cemetery burned down in the mid-1970s, resulting in the loss of many physical ownership cards related to that site.
 
“There are going to be a lot of older burials that are not in our software,” Peppo said. “If a family feels more than certain that a family grave is in (a certain) cemetery, then we have other means to do research in the office. Just because you can’t locate somebody through this feature, does not mean they’re not buried in our cemeteries.”

Streamlines searches

The office’s first electronic database debuted in the 1990s, following the manual inputting of paper-based records now safely stored in cemetery and archdiocesan archives. While that project was a big step forward, the database was not readily available to the public and burial site searches could only be conducted on a cemetery-by-cemetery basis. Searches also required families to provide the name of the title owner of the given cemetery property – information that often had been forgotten over the years.
 
“Each cemetery had its own database, so we couldn’t search all our cemeteries together,” Peppo explained. “If someone came to our office and said they were looking for their great grandmother and they did not know which cemetery she was in, it would be really difficult to find that person. All we could do was try pull that record by that last name, and still it would be hit or miss if the grave was in that name. If the person buried in the grave has a different last name than the title owner, then we could only pull the title owner. With the new software, we can go in and search all our cemeteries (for all who are buried there) by each individual’s name,” she said.

Once lost, now found

Peppo hopes to bring additional enhancements to the Burial Search feature in the coming year, including an app and a mapping capability that will guide hunters to the exact spot within the cemetery with the aid of their smart phone or tablet. Another upcoming feature will accommodate the posting of photos of a grave alongside a decedent’s burial information.
 
“We do have a lot of families that are looking for that connection to prior generations, but who over the years may not have asked questions like, ‘Where was my great great grandmother buried?’ The burial search feature definitely can help them with that,” said Peppo, who has witnessed the jubilation of families when they finally find their long-lost ancestors.
 
“Sometimes, for whatever reason, families over the years did not inscribe everyone’s name on the tablet or headstone, so sometimes a family member can’t even go out to the grave and see the names of everyone who’s in there,” Peppo said. “But our database lists everyone who is in that tomb.”
 
For information, call 596-3050 or visit www.nolacatholiccemeteries.org.
 
New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries operates 13 cemeteries: St. Joseph Nos. 1 and 2 on Washington Avenue; St. Louis No. 1 (Basin Street); No. 2 (Claiborne Avenue); and No. 3 (Esplanade Avenue); St. Patrick Nos. 1 (Canal Street), 2 and 3 (City Park Avenue); St. Roch Nos. 1 and 2 on St. Roch Avenue; St. Vincent de Paul Nos. 1 and 2 on Soniat Street; and St. Charles Cemetery (Paul Maillard Road in Luling).
 
Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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