Do Not Migrate

This lecture is part of the 2009 Nationwide Cemetery Preservation Summit

GIS Tools for the Cultural Resource Management of Cemeteries by James Stein

Thank you. I’m going to talk about using GIS for cemetery management and, specifically, cultural resource management within cemeteries. Basically, as you all know, a lot of times, information about cemeteries just is not very well-documented. It stays there in maps that are hand-drawn, history databases or someone who runs the cemetery knows it or the guy who mows the lawn knows what the schedule is, that sort of thing.

The capability for both staff and visitors to find the location of, and information about, existing burials is probably the most important priority when discussing the development of a GIS application for a cemetery. As with any project assessing the needs of the client during project planning is important.


A GIS can take a lot of these Historic text, maps, all the information that’s there, combine it with geographic information from GPS surveys, digital photography and put them into a GIS and allow better [management 01:05]. A GIS is a Geographic Information System, for those who don’t know. Basically, it takes maps, it takes databases, puts them together, and then attaches everything to that one geographic point. Okay, and you all know the reasons for mapping cemeteries. It’s cultural resource conservation, maintenance of markers and monuments, facilities and grounds management, record management, interment planning, and locating the existing interments.

Basically, the cultural resource is not exclusive of the other ones, especially the maintenance. If you can know where your cultural resources are, you can protect them during the maintenance, you can do special maintenance on them, or you may know reasons why you have to do certain things to an area of the cemetery. Basically, we’ve done several of these projects in cemeteries, and the main thing everybody looks at regularly is for staff and visitors to find the location of and information about existing graves. Okay? “Where was my ancestor buried?” “Where was this person buried that I just got more information about? Okay.

Poplar Grove National Cemetery Application. Developed in ESRI MapObjects in 2000. Stand alone application with no editing capability.

Poplar Grove National Cemetery Application.

There are locator applications out there. They’re
proprietary, they mainly look at maintenance and they look at selling the plots. Okay, where can we put interments? What plots do we have to sell? That sort of thing. Like I said, they’re proprietary, so it’s very hard to go in there and bring other information in that you may want to add to make them fit your needs, especially for cultural resources.

The CRGIS groundwork , together with the Veteran’s Affairs National Cemetery Administration decided to do a pilot project at Alexandria National Cemetery, and we at CRGIS have been developing GIS tools for cemeteries before. We did one at Poplar Grove National Cemetery. It was done in a software called Map Optics. It’s a standalone application and there’s really no editing capability or querying capability other than “Where is this grave located and can I pull up this picture?” Okay, and we also did the same thing at Chalmette National Cemetery in Louisiana, and again, it was no-capability.

The one for Alexandria, they wanted to be able to rebuts. They wanted to be able to do queries, to do editing. Okay. In June 2006, we delivered phase 1 of the application and, in September 2008, we began work on phase 2 of the application. There was a gravesite locator for Alexandria and all the other national cemeteries on the website of the NCA, but it’s very generalized about the deceased and the grave location. For phase 1, we looked at developing an application that had editing capabilities for the data where you could add data and they had the flexible queries. We also developed a visual basic application that provided us a little locator where they could go in, find the name, and it would bring up information about the grave.

Because of distortion in the paper copies of the maps the graves and ancillary features were referenced to these maps and not the GPS data; which was only used to georeference the maps.

Because of distortion in the paper copies of the maps the graves and ancillary features were referenced to these maps and not the GPS data; which was only used to georeference the maps.

For the phase 1, we took paper copies of maps, plans, aerial photo, we scanned those and put them in digital form. Unfortunately, the paper copies that we got, we weren’t sure of how far away from the originals they were, and every time the scanner copies something, you add in some distortion. We would recommend that any projects you do, that you [note in 05:40] a cost of going to the originals if you can, and knowing the generation that your copies are from.

We located points on those scanned maps and then we went out into the cemetery, located those same points on the ground in GPS. We then geo-coded or gave the scanned copies real-world coordinates. Right away, they were, you know, we could place them onto any other map. Okay. We then made a layer containing points that represented the graves and we basically did this by geo-coding them as addresses. We took the rows, we took the sections, we took the grave number, and we treated them as if it was a regular street address. Okay, so the row would be the street and the grave would be the house number of the grave. You can do this, it’s very simple for curb or anything that would represent a street. It’s very simple to generate these points, it’s not time-consuming at all. Okay.

We then went ahead and, because of the distortion to the paper copies, we took the graves and shifted them to meet the paper copies instead of keeping them true to the GPS. Not that that makes any sense. Okay, we took the database that the NCA had for the burials and then we attached that to that grave layer that we geo-coded. Now each of those points had all the information that the Cemetery Administration had about the burial. Okay, we took photos of every individual grave and it was more time-consuming than we thought it would be. Okay? We had to worry about the weather or that sun-angle. Because we took a bunch a photos and you would not believe how many came out that we just could not read and you just don’t expect that. There’s the stone, it looks perfect, you take the picture of it, and because of shadow, you just couldn’t read it.

Photos of the graves were taken and the file name was added to the database to enable us to reference and display the image. Taking the photos of the markers was one of the most time consuming tasks of the project, issues such as weather and sun angle were the major delays in obtaining the photos.

Photos of the graves were taken and the file name was added to the database to enable us to reference and display the image.

Speaker 2:You didn’t know the mirror trick.

James: No.

Speaker 2:Use a mirror.

James: Oh, for sunlight? Oh, for sunlight, yeah.

Speaker 2:it bounces off

James: Yes.

Speaker 3:The worst part is getting up and down

James: Yeah.

Speaker 3:… get the pictures and trying to stand up.

James: Yeah, I could certainly bring my daughter’s wagon so you can just pull me along there.

Additional information was identified by Sarah Leech, who’s the historian, that would be helpful for them in the cultural resources management, and it including built and landscape features. Okay. Ancillary data such as historic and contemporary photos, documents, were combined into an Adobe Acrobat document and hyperlinked to the appropriate point in the GIS. All of the documents that we had, you could click on the point that represented, say, the lodge, and it would come up with this document so you can go through and find everything. Also, all the photos we took of the graves were also hyperlinked to that point of the grave so you could click and not only get the database information, but you’d also get the photo of the stone itself. Okay.

Phase II of the Alexandria project consists of integration of historical research; including personal information on the USCT interments and a timeline of the evolution of the cemetery. Also included in the second phase was an additional data layer for landscape plantings, re-georeferencing of the scanned maps and plans to reflect improvements in GPS accuracy and enhancements to the grave locator application to include editable fields and a search function tool.

Phase II of the Alexandria project consists of integration of historical research; including personal information on the USCT interments and a timeline of the evolution of the cemetery.

In phase 2 of the project, we’re … It consists of integration of historical research, including personal information of the US colored troops that are interred there and the timeline and the evolution of the cemetery. Also, we’ll be doing additional data layers for landscape plantings. We’re going to re-geo-reference those scanned maps. We have … GPS technology has come forward a little bit, so we have better geo-referencing to real-world according to those scanned documents. We’re also going to do some enhancements to that grave locator. We’re going build in more query opportunities, direct editing for the staff so they can add any documents, they can edit information that they find out about the interments.

Just in closing, because of the unique historic nature of cemeteries, you need to go into every cemetery with an open mind. It’s very easy … A lot of people have approached us to say, “Well, how do we do this? What did you do?” For each cemetery, they’re just different. You have to approach them as a separate project, okay? Go in and find out the leads about the cemetery staff and what the cultural resources are in their cemetery because a national cemetery is going to be different than a cemetery that has all kinds of different sections for religions, different monuments, that sort of thing, so approach them separately.

Too often, because of the historic nature of cemeteries, knowledge of burials and conservation is documented in paper forms and the experiences of individual caretakers. Taking these historic texts and maps and combining them with GPS surveys and digital photography into a GIS allows for better management and long term planning. Reasons for mapping cemeteries include cultural resource conservation, maintenance of markers and monuments, facilities and ground management, records management, interment planning and locating existing interments. The Historic American Landscape Survey/Cultural Resources GIS (HALS/CRGIS), in cooperation with the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration, has been developing GIS tools to use in the documentation and management of national cemeteries. Fourteen of these cemeteries are adjacent to, and managed by, NPS units.

In the past we have developed locator applications for Poplar Grove National Cemetery, located at the Petersburg National Military Park, and Chalmette Cemetery, located at the Chalmette National Military Park.The cemeteries were mapped using contemporary and historic maps, aerial photographs and global positioning system (GPS) units. Database information and photos of the grave markers were associated with the GIS data. Ancillary data such as historic and contemporary photos and documents were combined into Adobe Acrobat documents and hyperlinked to the appropriate point in the GIS. Additionally a VBA application was developed to provide a simplified search of the existing interments with the results displayed along with a photograph of the grave marker and the location of the grave highlighted on the map. Each cemetery is different with different mapping needs; to preserve the unique historic nature of cemeteries we must be willing to address the needs of each individual landscape and adapt the application to meet these needs.

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