One of the difficulties with Find a Grave is that it takes information of varying quality and throws it all into one huge pot, with little transparency about where the information came from. It is possible to evaluate each memorial to see how are reliable it might be, but the website itself doesn't make it easy.
Like many of the materials we use for genealogy, Find a Grave was not created for the purposes of doing genealogy and family history. The founder's original interest was in recording graves, including the graves of famous people.
Now, since the acquisition by Ancestry, the site has been re-purposed for genealogy. Users are encouraged to link the memorials of family members, making Find a Grave essentially the same as a badly-sourced Ancestry tree. On Ancestry's main site, one can look at a tree and see links to sources on the site, but Find a Grave only lists sources the the bio if the memorial creator happens to add them. Unlike an Ancestry tree, where users can leave comments on public trees, there's no easy way to leave public comments on memorials or see discussions about the content of a memorial from the memorial page. There's a fair amount of information which could be made transparent but is hidden and has to be clicked on to view, like the dates photos were added and the source citation.
The Find a Grave FAQ Who Manages Memorials reads, in part:
Our first preference would be for the manager to be a relative,
someone who knew the person or someone with ties to the cemetery or
location. Another great option is for the memorials to be managed by
one of the generous Find a Grave members who effectively manage
memorials as a service to the community and have been doing so since
the site began, volunteering their time and efforts. The member that
adds the memorial manages the memorial unless they have transferred it
to another member or to Find a Grave.
Find a Grave doesn't use badges or other markers that would tell us if a memorial was created by someone local to the cemetery. At first glance, we don't know if the memorial was created by:
- a relative of the deceased
- a local volunteer who knows the cemetery (a 'graver')
- a long-distance volunteer who is familiar with the area and has local knowledge, but now lives away from their hometown
- a long-distance volunteer who doesn't know the area and is entering the information from obituaries
- a researcher or relative who has information from somewhere suggesting the deceased is buried in that cemetery, and has created the memorial in order to make a photo request
People new to Find a Grave might assume that the information in the memorial came from family members or from gravestones and therefore must be accurate, but that assumption is dangerous. Many Find a Grave members are kind and ethical, but there is an ongoing problem with some "fastest gun in the west" Find a Grave members adding memorials to the site from obituaries before family members have time to create memorials themselves. Some people in the genealogy community have called for a moratorium for memorial creation so family members can post first. Judy G. Russell has documented the problem on her blog The Legal Genealogist:
One can learn more about individual members by going to their profile pages, but even long-time members who are meticulous and take great care in their work can make mistakes. There's no substitute for evaluating the information in the memorial ourselves.
The Evidence Analysis Process Map
Let's look at a Find a Grave memorial, using Elizabeth Shown Mills' Quicklesson 17: The Evidence Analysis Process Map from Evidence Explained.
Sources (the Find a Grave Memorial) can be:
- an Original record
- a Derivative record
- an Authored narrative
If the user is a 'graver' documenting their local cemetery, you might see memorial creation dates and photo upload dates that match, and information in the memorial that matches the infomation on the gravestone photo. This could be considered a derivative work (the memorial derives from the stone). Other cases, like memorials that were created without a photo so a user could make a photo request, could be considered an authored work. They could be copied from an obituary, but we often don't know where the creator found the information. Unless someone has uploaded the death certificate as a photo, we have to guess at where the information might have come from, as we would with an old-school unsourced genealogy.
Information shown in a Find a Grave Memorial can be judged by the informant's knowledge:
- Primary (first-hand knowledge of the informant)
- Secondary (second-hand knowledge; someone told the informant)
- Undetermined (we don't know about the informant)
We rarely know where the memorial creator got the information, or their relationship to the deceased. The information in most memorials will be undetermined or at best secondary, or a mixture.
One problem with the current-day practice of strangers creating memorials from obituaries is that there's no opportunity for people who knew the deceased to correct any errors that might have crept into the obituary. Consider how the obituary itself was created. Suppose a family member gives information to a funeral home employee, then the funeral employee gives the information to the newspaper, and the family never sees the text until it hits the newspaper's website or print edition. Obituaries are notoriously riddled with errors, in part because the informant may not know the correct information (they might know a 'from' place instead of the actual birthplace, or a woman's first married name but not her maiden name); the informant may make mistakes out of grief; the information may get garbled in between the informant to the funeral home employee or in between the funeral home employee and the newspaper.
There are mechanisms in place for users to suggest corrections to Find a Grave, but the mechanisms are cumbersome and not transparent to anyone but the user who submits the correction. Some members are kind and ethical and make timely corrections; sone members are unresponsive, and some memorials were created by members who are now deceased. The site doesn't say when the memorial was last updated. You have to go out of your way to find the information if you want to cross-check the photo upload dates against the date the memorial was originally created.
All of these problems need to be taken into account before you move to the third part of the process map (3 x 3) and use the information in the memorial as evidence (direct, indirect, or negative) to answer your research question.
One caution: just like on an Ancestry tree, the presence of sources in the bio doesn't mean the sources listed in the bio actually belong to the person in the memorial. It's easy to get same-name people mixed up just as with any other records. Evaluate bios and linked family members with care, and consider where the memorial creator might have gotten the information. I've seen cases where a memorial creator mingled records from two different couples, creating a made-up family with six children, and attaching grandparents which only belonged to half of the people listed in the bio. Anyone taking all that information at face value, without evaluating the sources as a group and doing their own analysis, who accepted the relationships as stated, would end up following the wrong family.
Most of all: remember that the presence of a stone is not a guarantee that a person was buried in that cemetery. The site is called "Find a Grave", and some have joked that it should be called "Find an Obit" because so many memorials are created from obituaries -- but since so few memorials are created from cemetery records, it often means "Find a Stone". Becks Kobel of The Hipster Historian suggested on her blog and via Twitter that the site should be named "Find a Memorial", to make a friendlier acroynm when people abbreviate the name of the site. "Find a Memorial" would be a more accurate description of the current purpose of the site. (See Find a Grave - It's About Time to read the full post.)
Families did and still do erect memorial stones and include the names of family members who are not buried in that family plot. Living people may appear in photos and in memorials because their names were put onto a joint stone with a spouse; when the surviving spouse eventually dies, they could be buried elsewhere. Just as people can be buried in a cemetery and not be marked with a stone, stones can exist in a cemetery without the person being buried there.
Readers should also consider these important points from @bgwiehle, which I reproduce from the comments so they won't be lost:
(1) Regarding memorial updates: one of the more recent site
improvements includes "last modified" dates in search results.
Granted, not accessible on the memorial itself, and not specific as to
what was changed.
(2) Regarding the degree of personal knowledge of a memorial's
creator: not irrelevant, but less important because there may have
been input from other contributors.
Since there is no 'talk' page, we can't tell which contributor supplied which bit of information, so the informant is "undetermined", the least reliable assessment.
The Genealogical Proof Standard
It may also be helpful to consider the QuickTip from the Evidence Explained blog: EAM & GPS: Newsflash! Siblings, not Twins. In it, Elizabeth Shown Mills discuses how the Evidence Analysis Map (EAM) works in conjuction with the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).
The five elements of the GPS are:
- Reasonably exhaustive research, using the best sources possible.
- Thorough documentation of each source.
- Skilled analysis and correlation of evidence from all the sources.
- Resolution of any conflicting evidence.
- A written proof statement or argument that lays out the body of evidence and the reasoning that is used to “make the case” for
whatever we think is the only credible answer.
Addressing each element in turn:
- Find a Grave can be an important source of clues for further research, so it shouldn't be ignored, but the researcher should ask the question you posed here, Where does the information come from?
- In my opinion, Find a Grave does users a disservice by hiding their source citation information behind extra clicks instead of leaving it out in the open.
- The main body of my answer discusses analysis of the evidence using the EAM. Correlate the information with other sources you've gathered, and it may become evident which sources the memorial creator drew on besides a photo or transcription of the gravestone.
- Resolving conflicting evidence ("a small detail will be off") can sometimes be helped by the analysis and correlation process, if you can see where the conflicting details came from.
- Even if you don't write up a formal proof statement, it can be helpful to write out your thought processes for your own research notes so that you can refer to your notes in the future. I would include the date the Find a Grave memorial was accessed because the memorial is not a static source -- it can be updated. I routinely print to PDF so I can have a snapshot of the memorial on the day I accessed it, and keep that as part of my research notes.
Finally, one can compare and contrast Find a Grave and Billion Grave memorials (or any other site which collects memorials or transcribes cemeteries) by looking at how information is contibuted for each site. In the case of Billion Graves, volunteers take photos of stones first and all other actions come afterwards. See https://billiongraves.com/volunteer or the support pages for each site you are evaluating. For example, sometimes sites like fold3 or Tributes.com will say that a memorial has been created from the information in the Social Security Death Index, in which case you can go to other sites supplying the SSDI to get more information. Not all versions of the SSDI are equal: see What fields are available from a Social Security Death Index (SSDI) search at different websites? for more information.