The BillionGraves Project

St Joseph's Cemetery
A poorly stitched panorama of St Joseph’s Cemetery from the furthest point in the back.

For a long time, I’ve had a fascination with graveyards and have visited a few around Kuching, wondering about the people buried there and what their stories were. Old graveyards like St Joseph’s Cemetery or the small graveyard on the grounds of St Thomas’s Cathedral date back to the days of the Brooke administration, with Europeans interred here in Kuching. And old headstones tend to be far more interesting than the standard marble slabs that are common today. Back in those graveyard-exploring days, I took photos and wondered if there was a way to properly document our graveyards.

Late last year, I learned about BillionGraves through their partnership with Geni. I got pretty excited after I read what BG is and what sets them apart from other graveyard record websites. This is what it says on their ‘About Us’ page:

Our goal is to preserve precious records found in cemeteries throughout the world. We use modern technology to capture images of headstones with their GPS locations so users worldwide can access those records anywhere. BillionGraves strives to do just that: preserve at least one billion graves. And we won’t stop there!

The BG app (currently available for iPhone and Android devices) records the GPS location of the photos you snap. This is automatically attached to the records and shows up on the website when you upload the image. The app lets you transcribe the information on the headstone if you prefer to do it yourself. Otherwise, it gets uploaded and joins the database of photos waiting to be transcribed. Any member can transcribe, but sometimes you run into problems… which I will get into later.

Once uploaded and transcribed, the record looks something like this: Brother Albinus O’Flaherty

Bro Albinus was my very first photo and record. Notice the cool feature of pinning the location of his grave on a map, which cuts down the search considerably for anyone who is looking for it. For people who want to see the grave but are unable to visit it personally, there are photos to show what it looks like.

To my knowledge, I’m the only active BG member in Kuching… although I got my riding buddy Cyn to give me a hand with the WWII Heroes Grave this one time:

Cyn shoots
How low we stoop to get a good photo.

If anyone from the Sarawak Tourism Federation or DBKU is reading this, we did some weeding on every grave so we could photograph the full stone. You’re welcome.

How you can help

Scary enough for you?
Scary enough for you?

1. Oh, Shoot!
Obviously one way you can help a great deal is to download the app, pick your favourite local cemetery (preferably one that I haven’t done yet) and start shooting. Get in touch with me if you are interested. If we can coordinate our efforts and agree on a standard to follow, we can cover a lot more ground together.

2. Transcribe
Now I know there are people out there who are intrigued by the idea but feel that graveyards are scary places and are not ready to brave the heat and mosquitoes. You can help from the comfort of home by transcribing records that are already online. I’m especially keen to get those of you from Malaysia and Singapore to participate. Why? Because the non-Asians mess up the names when transcribing headstones.

Here’s an example: The following is my full name. Which is my surname? -> Georgette Tan Thien Gin

If you said ‘Gin’, you probably don’t live in this region and don’t understand our name formats. If you said ‘Tan’, you probably understand why I’m ripping my hair out when I see what some members did to our local records. I also spotted this kind of error on existing Singaporean records, both on BG and on other cemetery record sites. They might not know what an ‘ak/anak’ or ‘a/l’ or ‘a/p’ means in a name. This is why I need your help. You can start right now.

I also need people who read Mandarin, Japanese and are familiar with the terms that might appear on a Muslim headstone (I’ve not visited a Muslim graveyard yet). There are also stones with Mandarin or Japanese characters coming in from other parts of the world, and there might not be enough people with the language skills to help.

3. Details, Details
Some of the people buried here (ie Bro Albinus or Kanang Langkau) are well-documented on publicly available  records. It would lend the BG records some additional value if these documents are linked or included.

Tips and Hazards

If you plan on visiting a graveyard to start shooting, here are some things I’ve already experienced or researched on:

1. Your Grave-Tripping Essentials

  • iPhone/Android phone with the app downloaded, signed in and configured to your preference. If possible, add the cemetery to the site before you go, or at least know the name of the place so you can add it when you’re there.
  • sunscreen / hat / umbrella
  • mosquito repellent
  • covered shoes and long pants
  • pen and notepad, in case the stone might be too faded for the camera to pick up but the inscription is visible to the eye
  • a friend or two, for extra hands and general safety reasons

2. Faded headstones

There are several methods which you can read up about here. I have not dealt with faded headstones yet because it will be extra work and I usually go alone. If you get to have a go at it first, make sure not to damage anything.

3. General Safety

Our graveyards are not very well maintained. Expect tall grass, lots of mosquitoes, barely any walking space between graves, and things like this:

Yes, those were my footprints.
Yes, those were my footprints.

The front of some graves will show signs of visitors – candles. These candles will be left to burn and run down, mixing with dirt and creating a waxy muck that your shoes will sink into, get stuck in and is just slippery enough to make you lose your balance. I don’t like falling down. You won’t want to fall down in a place where lots of stone and marble are packed closely together. Or near something like this:

Lots of things to discover at your nearest graveyard. What are you waiting for? Let’s get graving.

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