Geraldine (Geri) Pfeiffer grew up near a cemetery in Florida. As a child, she played among the tombstones and roller skated the paths for exercise. When Geri got a job working at a donut shop, she took an early-morning shortcut through the cemetery, rather than going around it. It held no fear for her.
“As an adult, I came to realize the importance of documenting gravestones to preserve ancestral history for future generations,” Geri said. “In my work with adoptees and foster children, I find that kids who are separated from their parents eventually, innately want to know about their birth family.”
In helping people research their family ancestry, Geri kept encountering the Find-A-Grave website, which is a catalog of over 210 million grave records. Find-A-Grave is a world-wide community-driven effort in which volunteers add gravestone photos, obituary information and GPS locations online.
“Preserving genealogical history is vital to individuals researching their family tree,” Geri said. “As headstones age, they disintegrate. Even marble wears away, so we lose that information unless it’s recorded. I decided to do my part by picking a cemetery to document.”
So, Geri started with a small cemetery near her home on Waterloo Road. If she found a gravestone record on Find-A-Grave that seemed incomplete or missing, she researched it to fill in the blanks. Then, she set her sight on Edmond’s oldest cemetery, Gracelawn.
“When I started, there were over 10,000 graves, but only 6,400 had Find-A-Grave profiles,” Geri said. “Now, after two and a half years of work, it’s up to 10,380 profiles.”
Geri visits Gracelawn every single day, which accounts for the staggering number of records she has added. She has touched each of the 10,000 graves personally, at least twice, and cross-referenced her records with the cemetery’s interactive map. She looks closely at each tombstone for further clues, sometimes finding overlooked information on the back. Geri has even helped discover missing grave markers.
In one instance, a family asked Geri to help locate a child from 1907 who had died of typhoid. The child was supposedly buried in Gracelawn, but no headstone was visible. Geri identified the likely location, and working with cemetery staff, Geri found the homemade stone buried 8-inches below the surface.
Geri is especially honored to have assisted in the placement of a missing headstone for Civil War veteran, Ephraim Rathbun. She identified Rathbun’s unmarked grave next to his wife. Unable to find any descendants, she learned that any U.S. Citizen can apply for a headstone if the veteran served before 1917. Digging through his hometown newspapers, she found proof of his burial at Gracelawn. “The cemetery staff allowed me to watch when the gravestone was placed,” Geri said happily. “It was very satisfying. Private Rathbun finally got his headstone after 97 years, 7 months, and 26 days.”
This year, Geri is embarking on her third and final round of verifying graves at Gracelawn. “That should take me about a year. Then, if I’m still able, I’d like to tackle Memorial Cemetery. There are about 40,000 people there, so that will probably take four or five years,” Geri said. “The time is worth it, because recording gravestones for future generations means that family ancestors and their lessons of humanity are not lost.”
Visit FindAGrave.com for more information.