Archive for October, 2012

The Undertaker Interviews

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

It’s Halloween, and we’re in the spirit of it. As you read about our recent interviews with two morticians, you’ll see that we’re willing to be a bit morbid – without being too grim, we hope. So fair warning is given: As we share what we think is interesting information, we’ll talk briefly about embalming, share a bit of gruesome mortician/autopsy humor, and present some uses for superglue and webcams that you may find a tad creepy. Read at your own risk.

Spencer and Chris

My colleague, Mark Olsen, and I recently visited the Sundberg-Olpin Funeral Home in Orem, Utah, where a young mortician, Spencer Weeks, gave us a tour and answered a lot of questions. Then we interviewed Chris Thompson, owner of Heritage North Funeral Home in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. We didn’t visit Whitehorse to tour his facility; Chris and his family were visiting our area.

Spencer Weeks

Spencer Weeks

One of our first questions for both men was, What do you like to be called? Mortician? Funeral director? Undertaker? Spencer prefers “funeral director.” Unlike some funeral directors we know, who don’t like the term at all, Chris actually prefers to be called an “undertaker.” He explained: The word undertaker refers not to a person who puts someone under the ground, but to one who undertakes whatever tasks are required when someone has died. To him the term suggests service.

Both emphasized the great professional satisfaction of helping people through a difficult time. (more…)

Halloween: using death records

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

Halloween costumes and traditions, ranging from the silly to the creepy to the gory, preoccupy Americans and some other peoples at this time of year, wherever Western Christianity has been influential.

By contrast, death records of various kinds capture family historians’ attention year-round. We’ll look at several kinds of death records and consider their strengths, limitations, and usefulness in family history.

Mortuary Tour

In a recent tour of a local mortuary (of which more in a later blog post), we were given a packet of paperwork and information that the funeral home provides to the family of the deceased. Its contents provide a good tour of the various death records that are available.

There are several pages in the packet related to funeral and burial arrangements, including prices of cemetery plots, caskets, concrete vaults, funeral services, and more. You might not think that any of these would be of genealogical interest, but cemetery plot purchase records, if you can find them, can lead to other death records and also help you locate the tombstone.

Death Certificate and Death Certificate Application

The folder also contains a death certificate application, from which an official death certificate is created. The application itself may be kept on file at the funeral home and may be useful when studying family history.
The application will vary from place to place. The one we were given asks for the following information about the deceased:

Death Certificate

Death Certificate

• US Social Security Number
• Name
• Place of death
• Time of death
• Age
• Attending Physician
• Date of death
• Place of birth
• Date of birth
• Father
• Mother
• Spouse
• Spouse – Living – yes or no, and date of death if applicable
• Place of Marriage
• Date of Marriage
• Occupation
• Church affiliation
• School year complete
• Veteran – yes or no – and branch of service
• Clubs/Activities/Accomplishments/Church Service


What do you want on your tombstone?

Monday, October 15th, 2012
Tombstone Symbols in Boston

Tombstones in Boston

For many of us, a tombstone is our last and most durable public memento. It marks a place where loved ones can come to remember and reflect. A colleague notes that it also guarantees that, even if our loved ones don’t remember us, the person who mows the cemetery lawn will.

Tombstones may be small or large, simple or ornate. Besides marking the burial place of our physical remains, they also provide information: a name and at least a date or two, and often more.


Many tombstones include an epitaph, a few, pithy words from or about the deceased. You may want to choose your own epitaph in advance, unless you’d prefer that your family choose it for you, when you’re no longer around to disapprove.

Boston Granary Cemetery

Boston Granary Cemetery

We don’t expect good writing to be easy, but trying to summarize a long life – or even a short one – in a phrase or two is especially difficult.

We asked a few co-workers at MyHeritage’s US office, “What would you like on your tombstone?” We weren’t talking about pizza, but we might have had more responses if we had been. Apparently, a lot of people don’t want to think about the living – especially themselves – someday being, well, dead.

Our less squeamish colleagues offered a few suggestions, for themselves and for others.

Julie, whose husband is a firefighter, offered this for her husband:

“Stay out of the heat.”

Justin suggested a famous line attributed to Edmund Burke:

Paul Revere Monument

Paul Revere Monument

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

David offered two thoughts for his own epitaph that were serious . . .

“Better life beyond. See you there someday.”

“Son, brother, husband, father, and some lesser things.”

. . . and two that weren’t:

“Here lies Mr. Rodeback, dead,

In a box, with a rock on his head.
It’s too bad he never finished this limerick, because now it’s too late.”

“Check him out at”

(That’s not a real link, at least not yet.)

Clare selected this classic verse:

Here lies my wife.
I bid her goodbye.
She rests in peace,
And now so do I.

QR Codes

For myself, a name and the dates are just fine, and any great quote from scripture or a religious leader. What I really want on my tombstone is something new: a QR code. QR is for Quick Response. Visitors can scan the code and be taken quickly to a web site about the deceased (me).

QR Code Tombstone - Scan the large QR Code

QR Code Tombstone - Scan the large QR Code

The QR code can point to a YouTube video, a family tree, an obituary, or anything else you can find at a web page. It’s on a sticker attached to the stone. Some people don’t like how they look, but they’re catching on. Anyway, it must be only a matter of time before someone designs them to blend in better with the stone.

Imagine: Someone is in the cemetery, visiting my gravestone. A simple tap of a smartphone activates a link, which pulls up more information about me, the deceased: videos, memories, family trees, and more.

Scan the QR code on the tombstone picture to see how this works – I have included a large QR code to make it easy. And yes, you actually can scan this one here now on the computer screen.  Your SmartPhone or iPad will then bring up the site where I have programed this code to take you.

Don’t have a QR code reader – download one from the App store.  Here is the one I use.

Images, New and Old

Symbols on Tombstones

Symbols on Tombstones

Putting symbols on gravestones is not a new idea. In Boston in the 1700s, for example, there was often an image carved at the top of the stone – an angel, a skull, or something else – to protect the grave from various evils. (There is a lot of information online about the various symbols used on the tombstones.  Here is information from the city of Boston about the many tombstone markings found there.)

I’ve noticed many modern tombstones which incorporate images to summarize a life: flowers, religious symbols, a car or truck, a favorite team’s logo, etc. Cooper, a boy I blogged about last year, has his photo etched in bronze on his tombstone.  It’s a beautiful monument that his family visits often.

Laser engraving now allows the creation of tombstones with realistic, high-resolution photos engraved in the stone. (See a July 2011 article in The Atlantic.)

I’ve mentioned some of the possibilities. What do you want on your tombstone?

Old Tombstones found in Boston

Old Tombstones found in Boston