ICFM Magazine, January 2006
Cemetery records are a treasure trove of important historic and current information for both families and communities.
This irreplaceable data, once lost, can never be recovered. Or can it?
Hurricane Katrina recently gave us a vivid reminder of the fragility of traditional cemetery records. On August 29, 2005, a 30-foot storm surge at Gulfport, Mississippi, leveled the city cemetery office building, located two blocks from the beach. Where once a sturdy building stood, only a concrete slab remained.
Vicki Parkhill, the city's cultural affairs officer, remembers the storm aftermath: "I arrived at the office and found that the storm surge had washed the building and its contents off the cement slab. I began to cry, because I could not believe this hurricane did this. The records gone—everything gone. Nothing was left. Just a site of absolutely nothing."
Years of plot and operations information, recorded on thousands of cemetery lot cards, was lost. To add to the confusion, the loss of life in Gulfport created an immediate need for cemetery services.
What if this type of disaster—hurricane, tornado, fire—struck your cemetery office? Would you be ready for business again in one day? One month? One year? A data disaster recovery plan is crucial to your business. So what are your options?
Disaster plan options
Basic, low-cost. The most basic and least expensive option is to make simple copies of your lot cards. Cemetery records also can be scanned into computer file "photocopies." They can be saved in a variety of file formats, including JPEG and PDF. These file types can be opened by most basic computer software for viewing, but not modifying. Store the paper or computer file copies in a fireproof container or room, above flood level.
The key to this disaster recovery plan is to store the backup copies at a remote location. The building down the block may not be in the same fire, but could be struck by the same tornado, flood or hurricane. The remote location must be far enough away from the primary record storage to avoid complete data loss from the same disaster.
The short-term benefit of copying lot cards is the cost. The initial expense is minimal compared to other options. The drawback is the long-term upkeep of the offsite records. The records at the remote location will quickly become outdated, especially financial records. Updating paper backup records is very important, but time-consuming.
Automated. The next level of data protection is to automate your cemetery records with a cemetery management software package. Cemetery management software has the obvious benefits of greater operations accuracy and efficiency.
The disaster recovery benefits are less tangible, but equally important. Cemetery management software usually has a backup function built in that requires only a blank CD or backup tape and the click of a button. With one recent backup tape or CD of the computerized records, a cemetery can recover from total record loss within hours.
The location of the backup media is again important, but much less space is required for storage. Remember to create backups daily or weekly to keep the data current. If you are backing up records only once a month or quarterly, you are not taking advantage of the full disaster recovery benefits of your software.
Remember your maps. Lot cards are not the only records which can be lost or damaged. Cemeteries often rely on multiple maps to track lot locations and owner or burial information.
Imagine your situation if your cemetery maps suddenly disappeared. How many months—or years—would it take for you to go through the lot cards to recreate a complete map?
If your lot cards were also missing, would it even be possible to recover all the information? Creating a backup map should be an important part of your disaster recovery plan.
Many maps are handwritten on oversized paper, with manual color categorization. Photocopies of oversized paper may be available at some printing companies, or a specialized map company.
Check with the company first if you need a color copy; oversized color copying services are more expensive and less widely available.
Store the backup maps according to the same guidelines used for storing the lot card backups, and avoid storing them in direct sunlight. Direct sunlight can deteriorate some types of paper or cause ink to fade.
Smart maps. The alternative to paper copies of cemetery maps is computerized, interactive "smart" maps. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology, your cemetery can be mapped into a computer file. Combining multiple paper maps prevents data accuracy issues usually associated with referencing multiple maps for a variety of information.
The computerized map is integrated with the cemetery management software for "point and click" access to information formerly kept on maps and lot cards. Even financial records can be linked to your map. The map is then included in the built-in backup function of the software.
Past disasters. GIS maps are great disaster recovery safeguards against future problems, but what if disaster has already struck? Let's say a building fire burned all your cemetery maps and records in 1960, or a vandal removed headstones in 1943. Is there anything you can do now to locate occupied versus vacant burial sites?
If a small number of lots need exploration, digging or probing may be an effective option. However, care and time must be taken to prevent damage to caskets or, worse, emotional damage to family members who find a recently excavated burial site within their plot.
Technology provides larger cemeteries or cemeteries hoping to minimize site disturbance with an alternative to manual excavation. Ground penetrating radar [discussed in detail in the March-April 2004 ICFM] has been used to scan cemeteries that experienced record loss at some point in their history.
The radar scans the ground for inconsistencies and creates of rough outline of objects below the surface. It can outline a burial, a large buried rock, or even a utility line. The map created by the radar can be integrated with an existing, interactive "smart" map. If you need to know which lots are unavailable for burial because of blockage in the ground, or to verify those available for sale, you may want to consider ground penetrating radar.
What did Gulfport do?
So what happened to the City of Gulfport Cemeteries after Hurricane Katrina wiped out the office? By a lucky twist of fate, earlier in the year the city had shipped all of their lot cards and cemetery maps off to a vendor (Ramaker & Associates) for scanning. The lot cards and maps had been returned to the city just two weeks before the storm hit, so they were all washed away.
When she saw that the cemetery building—and all of the paper records—were wiped out, her initial reaction was shock, Parkhill said. "I couldn't think. Then I realized Ramaker had all the cards and maps scanned. I was so excited!"
Parkhill called the company to find out what information the city could get to replace the lost data. Within 24 hours, the city received electronic copies of all documents via e-mail; and within a week, hard copy versions of all lot and burial cards were shipped down to Mississippi.
"What a relief," Parkhill said. "Because there were copies, we'll be able to rebuild and revive our cemetery records." The City of Gulfport Cemeteries disaster is a perfect example of data automation literally saving a cemetery from total record loss.
To safeguard your cemetery's data integrity against potential data loss disasters, which level of protection will you choose? It may depend on your risk comfort level and judgment about costs and benefits, but it is important to have some sort of plan in place. Otherwise, what will you say after a disaster strikes and a client comes in to ask for the location of the plot purchased 30 years ago? Will you say, "I can get the information to you in a few days," or "I'm sorry, I might know next year sometime."