This article appeared in The Galitzianer, (November, 2006) ·

Three Methods For Capturing Burial Data for the JOWBR

by Ada Green

The JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) is a searchable database on JewishGen. The goal of the project is to catalog all existing Jewish cemeteries and burial societies worldwide. It does not accept information on individual burials, but only for complete cemeteries, landsmanshaft or synagogue plots, or other types of burial societies (labor organization, fraternal organizations, occupational plots, etc.). In other words, a burial society doesn’t necessary have to be a landsmanshaft plot— it can be a plot for a synagogue or any other kind of Jewish organization.

There are three ways of capturing burial data: paper, audio recorder, or digital camera:

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Paper

This method is only for people who don’t have a digital camera or audio recorder and it’s the least efficient. It’s the horse-and-buggy way of doing things and unless there are other people helping you, it may take you a number of cemetery visits before you are able to cover everyone in the burial society. If you use this method, you can copy one of the forms at www.ancestryprinting.com/cemetery.html. Since the form does not contain a field for Hebrew name, you might want to modify it specifically for Jewish cemeteries or you can use the already modified form that can be found on p. 214 of the syllabus for the 26th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy.

Transcription forms will save you from having to write down the categories each time—you can just fill in the data. However, you will need to know in advance the approximate number of burials that you will be cataloging so that you know how many pages of the form you need to photocopy.

Actually, there is one advantage of this method—although you’ll be spending much more time in a cemetery: you’ll spend less time at the computer because when you’re ready to enter the data into an Excel spreadsheet, you can type it directly into the JOWBR template in the order that the data fields appear because you’ll have all the data right in front of you.

Audio

By “audio” I mean capturing the data with a cassette recorder and then transcribing it afterwards. I’m going to talk about this method in the first person singular because it will probably be your least favorite cup of tea due to the double amount of transcription required afterwards. Until I purchased a digital camera in June 2005, this was the method by which I captured all of my burial data since1995 and it’s still my preferred choice. It works for me because for many years I was a legal secretary and legal word processor so I’ve been well-conditioned to using Dictaphone transcription.

What I do is I go to the cemetery and—row by row, grave by grave—record the name, date of death, date of birth or age, Hebrew name and tombstone inscription into the recorder. I always record the name first so that I will know that all further information contained in the inscription pertains to that particular person, as opposed to the gravestone immediately before or after it. In other words, it’s all about the name. I spell out almost all surnames and even first names so that when I transcribe the burials at home they’ll be exactly the way they appear on the tombstone. Spelling the name out is the only way I will be able to distinguish Cohen from Cohn or Molly from Mollie when I am no longer standing in front of the gravestone. For the Hebrew name, I always say “son of” instead “ben” to distinguish from the man’s name “Ben” (otherwise you can conceivably have Ben ben Ben-Tzion) and for a female I always say “daughter of” instead of “bat” to distinguish it from the female Hebrew name Batsheva. Otherwise you can conceivably have Bat Sheva bat Shevach v’Batya (Bat Sheva daughter of Shevach and Batya).

The advantage of recording the data—and what I like about it most—is that it gets me out of the cemetery faster than any other method, which I really appreciate in the dead of winter or the dog days of summer. I can record an average of 100 gravestones an hour, so in four hours I can record a 400-person plot. I don’t need to get up close and personal in front of every gravestone. I can stand in one spot and record four or five graves from there—as many as the eye can see at one time. If a particular row is a tight squeeze where there’s not much room to navigate or if there is a lot of overgrowth making walking difficult, I can stand in the row in front of it and still record the burial data, as long as I can see the gravestones without them being obscured by a taller gravestone or by vines. Otherwise I do have to get up close to the gravestone and pull away the vines with my gardening gloves.

This audio method is perfect for graves that are covered by bush or vines because you can use one hand to pull away enough of the overgrowth to read the stone and use the other hand to hold the recorder up to your mouth at the same time. I use the cheapest, no-frills cassette recorder I could find at Radio Shack with no bells and whistles, but someone recently suggested that I get one that I can put in my pocket and that comes with a wearable microphone so that I can free up both my hands. Great idea!

While the advantage of the audio method is that it will get you out of the cemetery quicker, the disadvantage is that you will be spending a lot more time at your computer. You will have to do a double transcription. First you’ll have to get the data off the tape and into a word processing program where you can see it. So you have to listen to the tapes and transcribe them, which takes three times as long as recording the data. At home I do not use the same cheap cassette recorder to transcribe the data that I did in the cemetery to record it. I use a “boom box” with speakers. I don’t have a foot pedal to regulate the speed of the tape—I type pretty fast, but if necessary I partially rewind the tape to get something that went by too fast. There are places where you can get a foot pedal that you can attach to your audio equipment—do a Google search for transcription foot pedal or Dictaphone foot pedal.

Because the data on tombstones isn’t in any set order and varies from one stone to another, you can’t just transcribe it from a tape directly into an Excel spreadsheet where the data fields are in a set order. You have to take that intermediate step first of getting it off the tape recorder.

Once the data is in a word processing file, you are then ready to enter it into an Excel spreadsheet in the order that the data fields appear in the template. You can either print the word processing file out or, to save paper, if you have two computer monitors that you can put near each other, you can display the word processing file on one of them, and enter the data into an Excel spreadsheet on the other one. You will still need to navigate your mouse or cursor through the word processing file to get from one screen length or one page to another.

One other disadvantage of this method is that when you are recording the data, it is very easy to inadvertently forget a piece of data about the deceased, most notably such inscriptions as “in memory of my beloved husband and our dear father,” but sometimes even dates, ages, and Hebrew names. In every single burial society that I have cataloged since day one, I have had to go back to the cemetery to get a piece of information on at least one deceased and often several more that I inadvertently missed when I recorded all the burials in the society. No matter how careful I am when I record the data, there are always times when you think that you have recorded everything on the gravestone but when you transcribe it, you find out you didn’t. If a gravestone has no Hebrew name, inscription, age, or a date of death isn’t filled in, I say so into the tape recorder so that I don’t go back to the cemetery looking for it. But if I see in my Excel template after I have entered the data that one of these pieces of information is missing, as indicated by a blank data field, and I haven’t noted that it wasn’t on the gravestone, I automatically assume that I missed it and have to go back to the cemetery and get it. How many of you like this audio method?

Digital camera

This is obviously the method of choice these days for capturing tombstone data. It’s great—if you use it every day you can record more burials in a few months than I did in 10 years. The best thing about it is that what you see is what you get. It’s the best way there is of capturing exactly what is on the stone and, figuratively speaking, bringing the cemetery into your home and onto your computer screen. In cemeteries and societies where there is lots of room to navigate it can go pretty quickly, but in cemeteries where the rows and graves are packed close together, like New York’s Mt. Zion and Washington Cemeteries, it’s no faster than the audio method and can even be slower. In those cemeteries you may have to twist yourself into all kinds of contortions in order to get the photo. It may require a lot of up and down movement because you may have to shoot the photos from the ground up in order to get them. That is exactly why I prefer the tapes.

And if I haven’t you convinced you, there are gravestones that are covered with so much vine (including poison ivy vines) or are so obscured by trees or bushes that it is virtually impossible to capture them with a camera. In cases like that I literally had to get in, under, or over the bush. So if you encounter a gravestone like that and you want to capture the inscription with a camera, you will need an audio recorder. Even the paper method won’t do in a case like this—how are you going to be able to write anything in such a jungle? Instead of two free hands you’ll need to put your mouth to work for you here, into an audio recorder.

What the digital method has in common with the audio one is that for the most efficient results, you will need two computer monitors placed near each other, one to display the gravestone images and the other for the Excel spreadsheet to enter the data. If you have only one computer monitor, you’ll have to constantly switch back and forth between the image and the Excel spreadsheet, unless you use the camera’s LCD monitor to display the data, which not only drains batteries, but also is very hard on the eyes. I don’t recommend it.

No matter which method you use to capture the burial data, after you are done it is ready to be entered into the JOWBR template, an Excel spreadsheet that you can download at www.jewishgen.org/databases/Cemetery/Submit.htm. The first thing you should do after you download it is to put all data fields into text format. You can do this by taking the following steps:

  • Highlight fields A through Q for as may burials as you think will be contained in the database (better to overestimate than underestimate).
  • Go to the toolbar in the Excel menu and click on “format.”
  • In the pulldown menu that appears, click on “cells.”
  • In the “format cells” pulldown menu that appears, highlight the word “text” and click the box that says “OK.”
  • Then save your file—the whole file will then be in text format

It’s especially important that your date of birth, date of death, and date of burial fields be in text format and not general format. If the date is in general format and you enter 02-Jan-1946, you are going to get 02-Jan-46.

The standard format for the date is dd-mmmyyyy, where mmm is the first three letters of the month. The purpose of using this date format is so that Americans who write the date with the month preceding the day will be on the same page as everyone else who writes the day preceding the month. You need to have a four-digit year so that there is no misunderstanding as to the century in which the death occurred. If you change the date format to custom format In versions of Excel 2003 and higher according to the JOWBR template’s dd-mmm-yyyy prescriptions and type in 02/04/06, the custom format will change the date to 04-Feb-2006; that won’t help you if the person died 04-Feb-1906. After you complete the data entry for one cemetery and submit it to JewishGen, be sure the entire template is in text format again before you use it for another cemetery.

There are 15 data fields in the JOWBR burial template. Each of them is very well explained at www.jewishgen.org/databases/Cemetery/JOWBRinstructions.htm so there’s no sense reinventing the wheel here by explaining them all over again. Needless to say, you are not going to have data for every field. Unless you look at death certificates or newspaper obituaries or knew the deceased personally, you will most likely not know the names of the deceased’s parents. The full Hebrew name (including the patronymic) should appear in the Hebrew name field. You can use ben (son of) or bat (daughter of) to separate the deceased from their patronymic, but I prefer simply just “b.” which stands for both ben and bat. The Hebrew patronymic goes only in the Hebrew name field; the father’s secular name is reserved for the father’s name field only (field M). For instance, if you have an Abraham COHEN whose Hebrew name was Avraham ben Yosef and his father’s secular name was Joseph, in the Hebrew name field you would type “Avraham ben Yosef” or “Avraham b. Yosef”, and you would put Joseph in the father’s name field.

If someone was born in Europe and you have documentation for it, in the place of birth field use only the exact name of the town and country according to today’s borders, not some generic “Russia,” “Poland” or “Austria” that could have changed borders more than once in the person’s lifetime or afterwards, rendering incorrect today the name of the country of birth. Most gravestones contain either a year of birth or an age, but not both. Use either one or the other—whichever is on the gravestone. If neither is given leave those data fields blank.

The spouse field (Field L) can often be determined easily. The most obvious way is if husband and wife share a double gravestone or two separate male and female gravestones side-by-side where the surname is the same, the deceased were of the same generation in age, and the Hebrew name of the father was different for each (to distinguish them from being brother and sister). Sometimes rows alternate in a burial society between males and females and one spouse could be in a row and grave directly in front in back of the other. Similarly, sometimes males are on one side of the burial society’s central path and women on the other, so a husband and wife could be in the same row, but on different sides of the central path. Because burials are often arranged by row in chronological order in which persons died, the older burials may be in the back of a burial society and the newer ones in front. Thus a husband and wife who died years apart from each other could be buried in totally different parts of the same plot. Yet many times their relationship can still be determined because in addition to having the same surname and being of the same generation, they have gravestones that are identical in design that indicate that one was the spouse of the other. In cases like that, often the husband’s gravestone will say “Father” and the wife’s will say “Mother.”

The ability to read Hebrew names can also help determine the relationships to others in the plot, particularly for offspring and siblings. In a New York burial society for Solotwina, Ukraine, there is a Harry Sipser (1891-1977) who shares a double gravestone with his wife Ettie. Harry’s Hebrew name was Eliah ben Aryeh Leib. Elsewhere in the The Galitzianer 19 November 2006 plot is an Isidore P. Sipser (1918-2001), whose Hebrew name was Yitzchak ben Eliyahu. Elsewhere in the plot again is a Sophie Schatz nee Sipser (1914- 2004), whose Hebrew name was Sima bat Eliah. Thus one can determine by surnames, ages, and Hebrew names that Isidore P. Sipser and Sophie Schatz Sipser were siblings and Harry and Ettie were their parents. So for Isidore and Sophie, the name of their father and mother could be put in data fields M and N, respectively. While there is no separate data field to indicate children or siblings, that information could be put in the comments/notes field (Field Q).

If only a Hebrew date appears on a gravestone it is generally not a good idea to convert it into an English date because the Hebrew day begins at sundown and the English date begins at midnight. If someone died between sundown and midnight, that could conceivably be one day according to the English calendar and the following day according to the Hebrew calendar. By converting the Hebrew date into the English calendar you stand the chance of distorting the true yarzheit date. If you are cataloging cemeteries in Eastern Europe in countries that were part of the former Russian Empire, the burials prior to 1918 would be according to the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian one. There is a 12- or 13- day difference between the two calendars. Do not attempt to convert these dates to the Gregorian calendar because if the deceased has a pre-1918 death record on file in one of the Eastern European archives, the date will be written according to the Julian calendar and if you convert the gravestone date to the Gregorian calendar it would conflict with the date on the death record, which might make it more difficult for an archivist or researcher to subsequently locate the record, if needed.

As the JOWBR data description says for field C, a woman’s maiden name is included in the given name field, immediately following her given name. Similarly, if a deceased’s spouse, father, or mother has a different surname than the deceased, that surname should follow their given name in the appropriate field. Surnames must be in all capital letters, no matter in what field they appear. The “Other Surnames” field (Field O) should contain any and all surnames that are listed in fields other than the Surname Field (Field B), including the comments field. If a surname does not appear in any of the other fields, then you can’t add it to the “Other Surnames” field. Consider the “Other Surnames” field as a cross-reference; if someone does a JOWBR database search for a particular surname, the Other Surnames connected with that person’s record will also appear, indicating other family members connected with the deceased who have a surname other than the deceased. In other words, the “Other Surnames” field is a very important one and should not be disregarded or overlooked.

Another important data field that should not be overlooked is the Comments/Notes field (Field Q). As the JOWBR data description says for that field, it’s for any miscellaneous notes that don’t fit into any of the other fields of the template. Examples of twenty-seven different types of information that would go in that field are listed on p. 216 of the aforementioned syllabus for the 26th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy. As a general rule, if the name, date, or age on a gravestone conflicts with what is in a state or municipal death index, an official death certificate, a cemetery plot map, a cemetery burial registry, the cemetery’s in-house computer, an online interment database, or other source, it is best to put the data that appears on the gravestone in the appropriate data fields, even if it is incorrect, and to note the discrepancy or correction in the comments field. Otherwise you stand the chance of someone not being able to locate the gravestone in the cemetery if the primary data fields contain information other than what’s on the stone.

I’d really like to encourage you to catalog a cemetery or burial society for the JOWBR, especially those containing the first generation of immigrants who came to America. From a genealogical standpoint these immigrants are the link to more remote ancestors from the Old World and the towns in which they lived. They were our grandparents and great grandparents. Many of them came to this country without a penny to their name and they toiled, struggled, and sacrificed of themselves so that their children could lead better lives than they did. In time we, their descendants, became the most affluent generation in American Jewish history. At the very least we owe it to our immigrant ancestors to preserve their names and gravestone data. For all that they went through in both the Old Country and in this one, and for all that they did for our parents or grandparents, they deserve better than to be forgotten into perpetual obscurity.
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