Review of

Midge Frazel over at Granite in My Blood has been blogging about the new Billion Graves app for the iPhone. I’ve downloaded it to my iPad and thought I’d take a look at the website. I took a test drive at Billion Graves. I think the site has potential. I’m hoping that some what I’ve seen so far is just glitches of a new system getting hit hard in its first weekend.

The stated goal of Billion Graves is “to provide an expansive family history database for records and images from the world’s cemeteries—but it’s not something we can do alone. We need you to help us by collecting images from your local cemeteries and transcribing the information those headstone images provide.” That’s a lofty goal, considering the reach of and its 62 million cemetery records. Will researchers and cemetery enthusiasts be willing to consider contributing to another site?

The search screen has four fields: first name, last name (required), birth year, and death year. I used the search term I use whenever I’m testing a new system: last name = smith. I got 44 results.

Person search and results

Above the results list is a dropdown menu to sort the results, with the options of Last Name A-Z, Last Name Z-A, First Name A-Z, First Name Z-A, Birth Date, or Death Date. However, none of the sort options would work. I tried on Firefox, Chrome, and Safari on my laptop and on Safari on my iPad. I tried selecting a sort option and then clicking “Search” again, I tried refreshing the page — the sort never changed.

I can understand the developers of Billion Graves wanting to keep their search form simple. However, if they get any sort of mass of records, there must be more search options. I can’t imagine trying to find my John Johnson only being able to search by name, birth year and death year. What if I didn’t know when he died? Having “place of burial” (even if it is just a state) is essential.

I clicked on the first result to see what the full entry looked like.

Full record

A couple of things puzzle me. First, why isn’t the name of the cemetery listed? If I share the URL to the page with this image, someone else visiting it has no idea where it is unless they click “View on Map.” When you do that, you are told that it is necessary to login to view that page. I hope that Billion Graves isn’t intentionally withholding the name and/or location of the cemetery unless the viewer is logged in. That’s not the way to make an inviting, welcoming site that people want to contribute to.

The second thing that puzzles me is the format of the date. Why show it in the record as “10/12/1946”? Those of us in the United States would probably interpret it as October 12, but it could be interpreted by Europeans as December 10. If the goal is to have a worldwide cemetery resource, the data need to be presented in a global-friendly format.

Billion Graves will allow you to search for a cemetery, using dropdowns for country, state, and county. You can also enter the cemetery name. I entered United States, Ohio, Fairfield and got 144 hits. There was the message “Showing only the first 100 results. Please narrow your search.” Why not list the first hundred and then give me the option to page through all of the cemeteries in that location? Also, the results came back in seemingly random order. They were alphabetical until the entry for Zwingly [sic] Cemetery, followed by County Infirmary and then the alphabet started over again.

Cemetery search and results

There appears to be a glitch in the system. When I clicked on a cemetery name, there was no option to search for another cemetery, so I used my browser’s back button. It took me back to the cemetery search, but the only options for states were Utah, Texas, and Tennessee (in that order). Out of curiosity, I clicked on Utah, and Beaver County was automatically selected. Thinking that maybe it was just showing cemeteries with records, I clicked on the first one. However, there were no records for it. When I used my back button to go back to the cemetery search page, United States and Utah were filled in — but the counties choices were Utah, Texas, and Tennessee. (I’m pretty sure those aren’t counties in Utah.)

Overall, I like the interface. It is easy to use (except where it isn’t) and it is easy to read. As I mentioned, I hope that some of what I’m seeing — sort options not working, cemetery name not displaying, glitch in the cemetery search — is the result of a young system getting hit hard.

Later this evening, I am going to create a account and see what, if anything, changes.

UPDATE: I’ve posted Part 2 of my review.

Posted: May 29, 2011.

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  • I’m glad you were able to explore BillionGraves so much. I tried it out first with my iPhone at the cemetery when I went to put some flowers on my Dad’s grave. I snapped a few photos and then went home to access the photos on my desktop computer and transcribe the data. I also wanted to try out the search, etc. from home. It took four or five emails back and forth to “Rob” at customer service to straighten out getting me on line via my home computer. I still can’t search or transcribe, but I could see the photo of my Dad’s grave. I’ll be back online with “Rob” tonight trying to see what’s up and to try out the other features of BillionGraves.

    • You’ll have to let us know how it goes after you get everything straightened out. Considering that their login page has as an option “Trouble verifying email?”, they must be having a fair number of problems.

  • Hi Amy,

    Great review! I do think some of it is that they are new. I too really, really hope they look at all the feedback they are getting and make changes, incorporations, etc. I agree with the various aspects you point out here – you can read what I posted yesterday on my blog at I personally am the most disappointed that they don’t have a social media presence and thus are not engaging in these conversations this weekend – this is a huge weekend too being Memorial Day Weekend!

    • Hi Taneya!

      It is very surprising that in this day and age a company would roll out a website and app like that without any social media presence. Considering that they are wanting collaboration for content, not being able to connect via Facebook, Twitter, etc. is a major omission on their part.

  • I’m gonna give BillionGraves a try tomorrow, but I’m thinking that what I really want is an iPhone app that gives me easy access to the FindAGrave database.

  • What I don’t understand is why we need another grave site — why not all work towards building the ones we have (especially It seems like it would be better to have one or two comprehensive sites rather than a whole bunch of smaller segmented ones. Of course, since I don’t have an iPhone or Android, I may be in the minority.

    • Barbara,

      I’ve wondered the same thing. Billion Graves even mentions it on their blog. According to BG, they tried contacting FindAGrave to work together, but never got a response. That’s a shame.

      What FindAGrave is sorely lacking (IMHO) is a smartphone app like Billion Graves. Let me take a photo with my phone and upload it right from there. Of course, what BG is lacking is the critical mass of data that they’ll need to be a true “go to” database. Can they build it? That remains to be seen. Perhaps just the fact that they’ve launched with an iPhone app (with a promise for an Android app) and talk of allowing non-smartphone uploads, the folks at FindAGrave will see that they shouldn’t be resting on their laurels.


  • I concur with all of the comments I read before I am sending this one. My specific interest in BG was that something I read lead me to believe that the cellphone pics would simultaneously record the GPS of the specific graves. My browsing at BG has not revealed a specific GPS location yet. Maybe this can’t be a part of cell phone pics if there is no Wi=Fi at the cemetery, but I urge BG and FAG to both pursue the GPS of individual graves in their future development.

    • It depends upon the settings you have on your phone. If you have GPS turned off (or your phone doesn’t have GPS), the app won’t work. I was able to use the Android version of the app, but had to turn my GPS on first.

  • Ive tried Billion Graves on several occasions and find that it is not as comprehensive with information and most often give me that “Sorry” message. Ive had my best luck using “”.
    I doubt they’re even close to a billion graves, just yet.

    • Right now, FindAGrave definitely has more records. And you’re right — “Billion Graves” is more of a goal than a statement of how many records they have. It will be interesting to watch their rate of growth, especially now that they’re working on allowing uploads from something other than GPS-enabled smartphones.