Saturday, January 24, 2015

Does this couple in Missouri own your relatives on Find a Grave, too?

Finding this was accidental, I swear!
One of my favorite actors is David Tennant, and during an interview he once told the story of a man who asked him for his autograph... in the shower. David Tennant signed the autograph simply to get back to what was left of his shower in peace, but not before making a point I have always remembered.

If you have to explain to someone why their behavior is inappropriate, are they really going to understand it?

Nevertheless, I'm going to go ahead with what I'm hoping can be a moment of constructive reflection for everyone who reads this. And if you're guilty of anything like what I'm about to describe, I want you to take an honest look at yourself. Realize that you are no different than the guy asking for someone's autograph while they're in the shower, and you simply don't know it yet.

A Disturbing Discovery

My husband's father just passed away, and we returned to our neighboring hometowns to visit with family and participate in the funeral. We are both genealogists, and we take what we do seriously. In the grand southern tradition from whence we both descend, we didn't bat an eye at taking a picture of the body in the casket. I made sure I got two shots of the pall bearers, so we could see all six of them. I kept extra programs and funeral cards. Suffice it to say, we need no assistance when it comes to remembering our dead.

His funeral was on Monday. I asked my husband if he wanted me to create the Find a Grave memorial on Tuesday. I created it on Wednesday after we arrived home--only to discover that one had already been created for him last week.

I couldn't believe it. I showed the memorial to my husband. He told me he didn't like the picture, and I recognized it instantly as the one his mother had given to the newspaper. He didn't need to tell me. I watched him tear our house apart looking for the perfect pictures to bring to the funeral. I watched him edit family photos for more than two hours to bring as a perfect offering of his father's memory.

I had to be the one to tell him that his father's memorial page was owned by Lyle & Marsha, a couple in Missouri he has never met. I watched the anger spell out in unspoken words across his face, as it dawned on him that total strangers had taken one of his father's most public memorials away from his family. I had to explain that we would have to ask them--ask them!--to transfer the memorial to us, and they would be under no obligation to cooperate. As his wife, I saw his anger smolder into quiet disgust with the human race. It was the last thing on earth I wanted him to feel after losing his father.

Upon closer inspection, I discovered that Lyle and Marsha created the memorial with the information published online in my father-in-law's obituary. Someone else then came along with the copied image from the newspaper, and added it to the memorial. The obituary is posted in its entirety on the memorial, which I have never liked for aesthetic reasons. The end result is a memorial that neither of us had any control over, and is in no way what we would have wanted. Which is ironic, given that Lyle and Marsha's stated goal is to "present a memorial that will please the family."

I would ask how they could ever hope to do that, given that they don't even know us. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Why should this couple be allowed to create memorials for people based on what is printed in obituaries, before the body is even buried? From a genealogical standpoint, this is unadulterated sloppiness on their part. How can they know what was printed in the obituary was accurate? I have half a dozen obituaries that have incorrect burial information on them, and I shudder to think what someone like Lyle and Marsha could have done with them.

How many memorials have they created with false information on them--simply because they have never met the family, they do not live in the area, and have no clue what they're talking about?

And more to the point, the last time I checked the website was called Find a Grave--not Find an Obituary.

So who are Lyle and Marsha?

I've been watching this couple very closely. I've watched their number of memorials created/managed continue to skyrocket. Find a Grave publishes their user statistics on their public profile. In 3 years, 11 months, and 3 days they have created 71,106 memorials. That's roughly 18,186 a year, more than 1,500 a month. This translates into 50 memorials created each day.

I want to draw attention to a few elements of their public Find a Grave contributor profile. They reveal so much more about themselves through their own words than I could ever hope to do with mine.

"If we have done a memorial for one of your loved ones, feel free to request their memorial. However, we transfer according to FAG guidelines. Please be kind when requesting. We will not reply to hateful, demanding requests. This is a hobby that we enjoy, and we will not allow anyone to add stress or aggravation to something we enjoy."

Clearly, Lyle and Marsha have been this intrusive, offensive, and disrespectful to other people's grief before. It isn't in the nature of sane, rational people to be angry with strangers. If this is an experience they find themselves having frequently, it means they're doing something that needs to be corrected. The appropriate response is NOT to minimize the the feelings of people they've hurt by accusing them of being "hateful" or "demanding." By saying they refuse to feel "stress or aggravation" over the pain they cause, they're pretending like they've done nothing wrong. They're saying their feelings matter, and those of others simply do not.

They demand respect, but they give none.

Let's talk for a minute about the Find a Grave guidelines they say they strive to uphold. This is the policy Find a Grave follows in these disputes over memorials.

If the memorial in question is a direct relative within four generations (siblings, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents) to you and the original submitter is not direct family, then they must transfer the memorial. If they refuse to transfer your relative to you, and we will work on it for you.

Lyle and Marsha are not direct relatives of my father-in-law. According to the guidelines, they are required to transfer the memorial to me and my husband. Seeing as they manage almost 80,000 profiles, I don't see them getting around to my transfer request any time soon. Maybe they'd have a little more time for courtesy if they weren't trying to inflate their statistics fake internet points so aggressively. So I've already escalated the matter to Find a Grave. They've transferred my case over to their partners at, and I'm *in the process of working together with them to have the memorial deleted.

By putting us into a situation where we have to reach out to them, on their terms, Lyle and Marsha intruded on our peace of mind. They are no less oblivious and selfish than David Tennant's naked autograph seeker. They could not have imposed on us more--even if they showed up to our hotel room, walked in on my husband in the shower, and asked for his autograph. The result is identical. To invade on someone's private, vulnerable space, for the sake of a record that doesn't even belong to them--that's what they've done to our family. Whether they will acknowledge their wrong or not, that is how they have made us feel.

While there is no law or user agreement that may forbid what they're doing, it's certainly against common sense and basic human decency. If nothing else, I hope they will ponder on the immense joy they clearly feel using Find a Grave, and recognize that they have taken that away from my husband. That may be the only way for them to comprehend their actions, because reason and user agreements certainly cannot help them.

What I Have Learned

Because of this entire situation, I've come up with some personal guidelines for how I'm going to create Find a Grave memorials from now on. I went through all of my created profiles and saw I had the presence of mind never to do any of these things. But I will still treat them as my personal policy from now on.

I will not create profiles for adults who have been deceased less than a year. For infants, children, and minors, I will not create a memorial until they have been deceased at least five years. I want to give ample time for families to grieve, and hopefully create the memorial themselves.
Wherever possible, I will not create memorials for my family based solely on information provided from obituaries or death records. I will find the testimony of someone who has been to the cemetery, seen or photographed the headstone, was present for the funeral, or visit the grave myself before creating the memorial. 
Any memorial I create for someone else's family will be from a visit I made to a cemetery, not from printed records. 
If an obituary names living people, I will not post it to a memorial. Just because someone's name was included in an obituary does not mean they want their names associated with the deceased. While this wasn't the case with my father-in-law, it definitely was with my own father. Some people are also concerned for their privacy, and it's no one's place but theirs to decide how their name is used on the internet.
I will not withhold memorials from living family members for any reason.  
I will remove a memorial if they ask me to do so, without argument or requiring an explanation.
I will respond to any requests made of me by living family within 24 hours, wherever possible.  
I will not copy photos from other websites to publish to Find a Grave, unless I have permission or they are public domain images.

Have you had any crazy experiences with Find a Grave volunteers? What are your personal policies on how you contribute to Find a Grave? Let us know in comments!

*UPDATE: Thanks to the fine folks at Find a Grave/, Lyle and Marsha's memorial has been deleted. I said on Twitter this morning that Find a Grave staff are so awesome, they deserve costumes and a theme song. This was what immediately came to mind...

When Marsha and Lyle
tryna cramp yo' style
Who you gonna call?
 Find a Grave!

When they swipe yo' dad
 Make you really mad
 Who you gonna call?

Find a Grave!