Congratulations to Pete Mohney, the Find a Grave® featured volunteer of the month for November, 2022! Pete was nominated by another Find a Grave volunteer, who told us about the work he has been doing for many years and his knowledge about the historic Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, Alabama. Pete and his wife have been working in this cemetery and others locally for years. When the weather turns too cold, he volunteers by transcribing photos and submitting famous biographies. We love his Find a Grave story and share it with you here.
I became involved with Find a Grave while working on my family tree on Ancestry. I found memorials for a few of my family members that didn’t have grave photos, so I put in photo requests. It seemed fair that if others were going to take photos for me, that I should return the favor and take photos for other people. One that particularly touched me was when I put in a request for one of my maternal great-grandmother, and when it was fulfilled, to find that her grave was unmarked. I contacted all my cousins, and we chipped in and had a marker made and placed for her. I showed a photo of the newly marked grave to my mother. She cried, as her childhood memory of her grandmother’s funeral had that she would be lost, as the family was very poor and no marker had been provided for. That helped me realize just how important and impactful a grave photo, even one for an unmarked grave, could be.
We have done most of our photography at a very large cemetery named Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, Alabama, which dates from about 1900. We’ve also done quite a bit in an older cemetery in the middle of the city named Oak Hill, in a Jewish cemetery named Knesses Israel, in a tiny church cemetery near our home, and a little bit in some other cemeteries while tracking down some mysteries.
When we decided to start grave photography, I looked online to see if there was someplace nearby where a lot of photos were needed, and discovered Elmwood just a few minutes from my home. The cemetery had about 50,000 memorials, maybe a third of them with photographs, and more than eight hundred photo requests! My wife and I stopped in at the front office, and the staff gave us a couple of lot locations. We decided that as long as we were there, we would photograph in one of the older parts of the cemetery so we could add photos to their memorials. We ended up taking a couple of hundred photos that day, creating new memorials and adding to others. We developed a strategy where she walks ahead of me, brushing the leaves and such off the stones, and I photograph. With permission from the cemetery staff, she began digging up the stones that had been overgrown with grass and soil (only using plastic tools so no stones are harmed), and we’ve found more than a few stones that had been lost to time. The cemetery is very good about bringing these back up to ground level so they don’t disappear again.
Going to Elmwood became our regular weekend activity, and we eventually grew to know the office staff by name, and they realized that our research was helping them, as family members of some of the people we made memorials for began contacting them to visit. The staff encouraged me to call daily for plot locations, and we found many of the photo requests accidentally while walking rows. Over about five years, we gradually whittled down the request list to nearly nothing.
By that time, we had added several thousand new memorials, and added several thousand photos to existing memorials, and had decided we would try to photograph every stone in at least the older part of the cemetery. It didn’t seem possible that we could photograph the entire cemetery; that idea wasn’t even on our radar! Then one day, while I was uploading photos, I noticed that most of the memorials I was adding photos to had photos on them that were added just a few days ago. It was clear that another contributor was walking rows just like us, and we had visited the same block within a couple of days of each other! He had taken many thousands of photos like we had, and added an enormous number of memorials. I messaged him, and we agreed to split the cemetery between us – we would continue working on the older part, and he would start with the newest block and we would meet in the middle. We actually ran into each other at the cemetery a few times, and conversed about our progress. It had become possible that, between us, we could actually finish the entire cemetery in a few years. I began keeping track of which blocks were done, and every few months, would shade in another block on my map of the cemetery.
Elmwood Cemetery map – 400 acres
One particular photo request that really stood out was one that at first was disappointing. A request was made for a man who was buried in an area where we had already photographed all the stones. We returned to the area, and checked for a marker for him, even carefully digging down a bit with a plastic trowel, but found nothing. I added a couple of area shots to the memorial, showing the empty spot next to some other stones, and noted that no grave marker was found. A few weeks later, I got an email from a woman saying that she was bringing her mother (who lived in Europe) to the cemetery to visit her father’s burial place. Due to our photos showing he had no marker, she had arranged to have a grave marker made and placed before her mother’s visit. Her mother was elderly and would never have been able to visit again, and they were both very touched to have been able to ensure he had a marker for her last visit with her husband.
While we’ve been researching some of the older burials at Elmwood, we’ve become friends with a local historian who wrote a book on early Greeks in Birmingham, and with the church historian for a predominantly Italian catholic church in the city. They have both been very helpful, teaching me a lot about the city’s early immigrant history, and we’ve become good online friends.
Thank you, Pete! We are appreciative of your efforts and the efforts of all Find a Grave volunteers. This work connects us as a community as we help one another and also allows people everywhere to discover information about those that have passed on.
Do you know a Find a Grave member who would make a good Volunteer of the Month? We welcome your suggestions. Please send an email with details of their work to firstname.lastname@example.org.