- Associated Press - Sunday, June 15, 2014

FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (AP) - For his Eagle Scout project, Hunter Boyer decided to help digitize the 141,000-plus names of people buried in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he appreciates genealogy and believes in the eternal bonds of families.

Yet key to his project has been an app called “BillionGraves” that uses photos of headstones taken with mobile devices, tags them with GPS locations and stores them into a searchable online database.

Boyer led about 150 volunteers May 31 to blanket the Fort Sam cemetery and pump out nearly 30,000 photos of headstones for BillionGraves.

“These people have lived their lives and may be lost here in the world and need to be found,” Boyer, 15, a sophomore this fall at Warren High School, told the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1iml7nh). “We’re here to bring them back to the eyes of the world again.”

Boyer’s effort is part of a pilot program by Mormons started April 1 in south central Texas. Individual congregants, their families and Mormon groups have been visiting local cemeteries, responding to the app’s goal for grass-roots volunteers to create an online map of the world’s gravesites.

On July 1, Mormon leaders plan to officially invite congregations in North America, Australia and other countries to do this work. The LDS genealogy department chose the San Antonio-Austin region to launch the pilot program because of its warmer weather and a personal connection between a staff member and the local Mormon community.

Headstones are highly credible records in genealogical studies but are threatened by deterioration and in some cases redevelopment. BillionGraves officials say digital photos, transcribed by volunteers, preserve that information. The company makes it searchable for free, which helps visitors locate headstones, especially in unmapped or remote cemeteries.

“On numerous occasions, people were looking for their ancestors’ names and were actually brought to tears when they see pictures of where their great-grandfather, for example, is buried,” said Tom Comstock, BillionGraves chief executive officer. “Then they can be guided within feet to the actual grave. There’s an emotional connection. You know where their final resting place is.”

BillionGraves began three years ago and is a commercial company headquartered in Kaysville, Utah. Its income thus far is mainly from ads, officials said, but it also has fee-based features. Its staff are Mormon, but they stress it is not a Mormon company and welcomes diverse users united in enthusiasm for family history research.

The genealogy department of the LDS church, Family Search, partnered with BillionGraves. Its growing database of more than 8 million records is also on FamilySearch.org, regarded as the world’s largest collection of family records. BillionGraves also has a partnership with the Israel-based “MyHeritage.com,” another family history database.

Volunteers “have felt the joy of service and (being) closer to their ancestors and the desire to connect with their families,” said Thom Reed, partner marketing manager for FamilySearch. “They say they are using their time wisely and doing something meaningful with their smartphones.”

Other similar online databases predated BillionGraves, including Find A Grave, owned by Ancestry.com.

Many genealogists use multiple grave databases, said Kathy Hinckley, executive director of the Association of Professional Genealogists in the Denver area. Hinckley, who is not Mormon, said BillionGraves has the potential to create a large database of headstones because it is getting the grassroots support of Mormon communities.

She noted that Mormons have a long track record as a genealogy resource. Two years ago, Mormon volunteers helped index the 1940 census, a massive data trove, placing it online for the public’s benefit, Hinckley said.

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