Eighty MyHeritage employees from our headquarters in Israel arrived in full force early Sunday morning to the Segula Cemetery in Petah Tikva, Israel, to digitize gravestones using the BillionGraves mobile application. We felt it was important to practice this ourselves, before we call upon others to join us in this initiative. By gaining hands-on experience, we aimed to create best practices, improve the product and fine-tune methodologies for digitizing cemeteries all around the world in the most efficient manner.
So what brings a large group of young folks with smartphones to a cemetery? We recently announced a global initiative, together with BillionGraves, to digitally preserve the world’s cemeteries. It is important to digitize cemeteries because of the key role that gravestones play in family history and in society in general. Most of the world's cemeteries have never been systematically documented nor has their information made available online. In addition, age and exposure to the elements are rendering gravestones illegible, making this project even more urgent.
It was a cloudy morning, with occasional drizzles. This was very fitting for our task at hand and the conditions proved to be perfect for taking photos. 80 employees participated in the event. It was the largest event of its kind ever held in Israel. A few members of the team worked on coordinating the logistics and photographing the event, while the rest concentrated exclusively on systematically photographing gravestones.
The Segula Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in Israel. It was established in 1888, only ten years after the founding of Petah Tikva itself. Many founders of the state of Israel are buried there, making it very special to the history of the country. Due to the size and age of the cemetery, a large portion of the Israeli population will have an ancestor in Segula.
We arrived at the cemetery and collected breakfast, to give us fuel for our project.
We started with a group practice session, led by Gilad Japhet, MyHeritage Founder and CEO, to make sure that everyone was proficient in using the app.
We then split into groups of two. Each pair was allotted a specific area of the cemetery that was labeled for them on maps that were distributed. Here is the satellite map of the Segula Cemetery which we used for allocating the work:
We then headed towards our zones and began snapping away.
The gravestones contain vital information about the deceased, such as dates of birth and death, names of parents, and place of origin. Some even had photos, handwritten poems and other physical objects attached to them.
Our employees did their best to take the highest quality photos. At times they had to move branches, temporarily remove stones, clean dirty surfaces and ensure proper lighting to get the best possible shot. Sometimes it is not easy to capture a whole gravestone in one image and still have the text be legible, so we used the important image-linking feature in the BillionGraves app. It is especially useful if there is text on a standing stone and also on the bottom stone, and where a husband and wife have graves together. The image-linking feature makes it easy to take multiple photos and link them together within the same record.
We spent 3 hours at the cemetery, and in that time the team managed to take 51,000 gravestones photos! Each employee averaged 700 photos, approximately 280 photos per hour. Some employees took over 1000 photos! We covered more than 72% of the whole Segula Cemetery and marked the remaining parts, to be photographed by us on a later date.
We returned to the MyHeritage office for a company-wide debriefing to discuss our experiences. The five employees who photographed the most graves were announced and awarded prizes. Everyone was commended for a job well done.
It was an incredible experience to kick-start this global initiative to preserve cemeteries with the whole MyHeritage team. We worked together with great motivation and energy. We helped digitize gravestone records for hundreds of thousands of people in Israel and around the world who have ancestors buried in the Segula Cemetery. The project was a success and the team enjoyed being able to contribute to society and help preserve important information for future generations.
Using the free BillionGraves application, anyone can easily photograph and document gravestones and the top feature is that the app preserves the exact GPS coordinates of every gravestone. This verifies the information and allows others to locate, visit or re-photograph any gravestone they have found. The gravestone photos are transcribed by volunteers using the BillionGraves app or website, and the records are then added to MyHeritage SuperSearch and to BillionGraves, and made available for free on both sites. MyHeritage Record Matching technology automatically notifies users on MyHeritage and Geni whenever a gravestone was added for one of their ancestors. This is a truly exciting, global, non-profit bona fide venture. As we continue in this worthy goal, with your help, millions of people will discover the final resting place of their ancestors and relatives and the information it includes.
We invite you all to participate in this global project and start digitizing the world’s cemeteries. Whether its a few photos from your local cemetery, or your own ancestors' gravestones, each photo preserved plays an important role in making family history accessible to all. Click here to join our global initiative. We have established a team to organize the efforts and we will be in touch with the people who volunteer to help them with advice, guides and resources. We will help organize those interested in get-together single cemetery projects like this, which make the activity more social and fun, and digitize the cemeteries of the world, one cemetery at a time, and one gravestone at a time!
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