Retired Teacher Photographs Gravestones, Creates Record For The Living

Video | October 29, 2015

Several days each week, retired history teacher Frank Germanson visits one of Milwaukee’s cemeteries.

As he walks between rows of gravestones, Germanson pauses, pulls out a camera and takes a photograph. Instead of coming to mourn the dead, Germanson is busy collecting information for the living. After taking photographs, he uploads them to an online database of gravestones.

It’s part of a project that began when Germanson began researching his family history.

“When I retired, I started working on our ancestry tree,” he said. “I was working on it, and one time I got a hint on Ancestry.com and it was FindAGrave.com.”

FindAGrave allows volunteers to upload photographs of gravestones, gravestones that convey important information for genealogists like birthdates, death dates, marriages, children, even immigration information.

Germanson has taken thousands of gravestone photographs over the past few years, uploading many to the website.

“At last count, I just rounded 17,000, and that’s in three years,” Germanson said. “I’ve taken over 21,000 pictures.” 

Those photographs have proven helpful to others, Germanson said.

“I had two sisters from Switzerland send me an email, and I posted a picture from Woodlawn Cemetery, and it just so happened that was their great-grandmother’s sister that moved to Wisconsin at the end of the last century, 1800s,” Germanson said. “So they thanked me profusely, and they wanted to know if I knew of anyone else, if she had any offspring, so I did go to Central Library and I looked up her obituary, and I did send it to those young ladies in Switzerland.”

As he researches and records each gravestone, Germanson finds new insights into the lives of the people buried beneath them.

“When I was first getting going … there was a husband and wife, and they had ten infants’ gravestones around them … all their children that died at birth,” Germanson said. “I t sounds really strange, but it’s almost like I can go there and look over their shoulders while they’re grieving.”

Those stories, Germanson says, are small but important parts of modern history.

“When you think of the United States and all the people that made it great, these are just some little pebbles in the mosaic, and I don’t want them to be forgotten,” Germanson said. 

Tags: genealogy / history / cemetery / headstones / photography / Frank Germanson

Joe Astrouski is a reporter for the "Wisconsin Life" project who travels the state, telling the stories of people and their passions. In his spare time, Joe enjoys fishing, hiking and eating his way across the Midwest with his wife, Charity.