I had an experience a while ago that got me thinking about today’s tombstone technology and what it might be like in the future. A company that shall remain nameless asked that I write about the company’s product: long-lasting display plates containing QR codes. The company’s products can be attached by adhesive, either to a tombstone (which I am strongly against) or to an urn, marker, or other nearby object that can be inserted into the ground near the tombstone. (I can live with that second idea.)
NOTE: For an explanation of QR codes, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QR_code.
The second part of the company’s product occurs when a future visitor to a cemetery uses a QR code reader in an Apple iPhone, Android phone, or similar mobile device to read the QR code. That person would use the device’s wireless wi-fi or cellular data Internet connection to display an associated web page that is stored on a web server someplace. This product requires the QR code to point to the dedicated web page on the company’s web server. Each QR code points to a different page on the server, and each page contains information supplied by the family that purchased the QR code display plate. That tribute page could either display information directly or redirect the visitor to another web site, such as a charity of the family’s choice or a family tree posted on some other web site.
At first, this sounds like a good idea; but, then I wondered, “What happens if the company goes out of business and their web site goes offline?” I assume the answer is that the customer has wasted the money he or she spent. While I hope this company remains in business for a long, long time, I still don’t like the idea of depending upon any one corporation’s future success.
The discussion I had with a company rep revolved around a possible endorsement of the product from me. In return, the company would offer a discount to readers of this newsletter.
I declined the company’s offer, and I will explain why I am not offering discounts on this product to newsletter readers. The bottom line is that I don’t approve of this product as it presently exists. However, I will also offer explanations and describe three of my concerns. I will say that minor product changes could quickly remove my objections. However, I think I have an even better idea, which I will also describe.
In fact, I believe there is a better technology that can achieve the same results without the use of adhesives or any other method of defacing the tombstone.
First, there is the concept of attaching a QR code (or any other foreign object) directly to a tombstone. I am against that for a variety of reasons. When discussing historic tombstones, most tombstone scholars would be aghast at the idea of using adhesives or any other means to attach a new object to an existing tombstone.
NOTE: Adhesives are commonly used to repair broken tombstones. However, only certain types of adhesive are used because an improper chemical mix in the adhesive can actually accelerate the tombstone’s decay. Some adhesives also expand or contract with changes in temperature. That would hasten the destruction of the tombstone—the exact opposite of what was planned.
If you are thinking of using an adhesive of any sort on any tombstone for any purpose, please first consult with an expert who knows what to use and especially what not to use! Even then, adhesives are normally only used to restore a tombstone as closely as possible to its original condition, not to add new attachments.
I do think the use of a nearby “marker” of some sort is a good idea, however. In many cemeteries we already see in-ground markers or flags placed by veterans’ organizations, fraternal organizations, the Daughters of the American Revolution, church groups, and others. These nearby markers are subject to occasional theft or lawnmower damage, but most of them seem to remain in place for decades. If the item deteriorates or is stolen, it is easily replaced without damaging anything else. These markers make me think that a SEPARATE marker containing a QR code could be used in any cemeteries that allow separate markers.
Acceptable use of a QR code
My second objection revolves around the question, “What web page or URL should the QR code point to?” I would never purchase a QR code marker that points to a corporation’s web site, even if that site then redirects the web browser elsewhere. The QR code should not be dependent upon the lifetime of any corporation.
I would prefer to have the QR code point directly to a web site of my choice, preferably to a web page that I own or control and a web site that I can pass on to one or more younger family members who can make sure it lasts until QR codes are replaced by some newer technology. To be sure, even pointing to one of my own web sites is an imperfect idea; but, at least it remains under my direct control. I like that better than depending upon some corporation where I have no control at all. If I have direct control and want to change the web page later, I can do so.
My third objection concerns technical longevity. While QR codes are a great solution today, I doubt if my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will use them. I’m reminded of the old proverb, “This too shall pass.” That’s another reason against permanently attaching anything to a tombstone: if the technology becomes obsolete, the tombstone is left with a permanently-attached memorial of someone’s failed use of the technology of that time. That would be embarrassing, even if the person who attached the foreign object has long since departed this world.
If a QR code becomes no longer relevant, a surviving family member could visit the grave and replace the QR code with something more useful. Of course, that can happen only if the QR code is NOT attached to the tombstone with some sort of permanent adhesive.
A Better Solution
In fact, I think I see a better technological solution on the horizon, a solution that is non-destructive and doesn’t require any attachments. It also doesn’t require an in-person visit to the cemetery by future “visitors.” It even solves the “problem” I have because all of my ancestors’ tombstones are buried in the snow for about four or five months every year. You may or may not have the same “problem.”
Tombstone experts have always questioned the practice of using any sort of adhesive to attach anything to a tombstone. Today’s smartphones have cameras and internal GPS receivers that make QR codes obsolete by replacing them with the one thing that never changes: latitude and longitude. In fact, future descendants and others can obtain the gravesite information without even visiting the cemetery, unlike a “solution” that requires an in-person visit to view and use QR codes.
Tombstone apps for BillionGraves.com and FindAGrave.com already provide cemetery visitors the power to easily find genealogical information about a deceased individual without the use of QR codes or other displays at the grave site. This is done when one volunteer visits the cemetery and snaps a quick photo of a particular gravesite’s monument from the app’s interface. (I assume the volunteer is not snapping pictures when snow obscures the information.) The photo normally includes longitude and latitude information embedded in the photo’s metadata, supplied by the mobile device’s internal GPS. That photo and its embedded information can then be uploaded to BillionGraves.com, FindAGrave.com, MyHeritage.com, FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, WeRelate.org, a personal web page devoted to a deceased relative’s memory, or to any of hundreds of other web sites. In fact, it can be uploaded to ALL of those sites and even more, should the photographer wish to do so. As part of the upload, still more textual information can be added beyond the embedded metadata. This might include the exact location of the tombstone, complete with a picture, a transcription of the tombstone’s text, instructions on how to find the cemetery, and any other information as well as web link(s) the uploader wishes.
If enough people start using longitude and latitude information, I am sure dozens of similar apps will appear in the future. I also know of only one web site today that encourages the use of longitude and latitude information for tombstones: BillionGraves.com. FindAGrave.com also accepts latitude and longitude information but doesn’t require it. Many of the tombstones listed on FindAGrave.com do not have geographic coordinates listed. This could change quickly; if customers were to start asking for the capability to AUTOMATICALLY record the coordinates already stored in a smartphone at the moment a picture is taken, I bet dozens of web sites would soon add new search capabilities.
A smartphone or any desktop or laptop computer could then access the online photo and its included metadata. Any app COULD (in the future) instantly recognize the exact tombstone in question and then display all known information about the stone and the person it commemorates. If the first page were to contain links to the individual’s information stored on other web sites, such as on BillionGraves.com, FindAGrave.com, MyHeritage.com, FamilySearch.org, or others, the person viewing the information could easily click to visit those additional sources of information.
Once the longitude and latitude information is automatically extracted from each picture’s metadata, I would envision the possibility of also clicking on an option that says, “Display nearby tombstones” or something similar. That would simplify the search for possible relatives of the first person, even in the largest of cemeteries. Today you can find lots of web sites that list a cemetery’s tombstones alphabetically, but very few of them will provide a listing of nearby tombstones. However, that capability would be simple to add if all tombstones’ longitude and latitude information were included as searchable database fields. That information already is embedded in most iPhone and Android photos and can be added to photos taken by a number of other cameras as well.
Theoretically, this information also could be added manually, but I wouldn’t want to do that to hundreds of photos at a time. That would be a tedious task! It’s much better to let technology perform mundane tasks for us. Let’s use cameras that embed that information for us automatically. Most of today’s smartphone cameras already do that anyway.
This technology should work when the information seeker is in the cemetery as well as when at home or at other locations. If used while in a cemetery, the process is simple. Since today’s smartphones usually include a GPS, an app written for that smartphone or tablet computer could easily determine where you are located and then show you information about nearby tombstones, more information than what is engraved on each stone. If you are at home or elsewhere when you use the app, you would have to enter the name or the latitude and longitude of each cemetery of interest. Perhaps the app would also automatically look up the cemetery’s name as well as its latitude and longitude.
The result should be nearly instant identification of any recorded tombstone from any location in the world, accompanied by all known information about the person buried there. That will even work in mid-winter as a personal visit should not be required. All of this can be done without attaching any foreign devices or adhesives to the tombstone.
I would love to go to a web site and say, “Show me all the tombstones containing the word ‘Eastman’ in the Pine Grove Cemetery in Bangor, Maine, plus all tombstones located within twenty feet of an Eastman tombstone.” The required technology is already available today. All we need is customer demand to encourage the programmers.
In summary, I doubt if any technology will last more than ten or twenty years. While QR codes are a great solution today, I doubt if my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will use them. I am sure an even better technology of some sort will eventually replace QR codes. I wouldn’t mind adding a QR code to a small marker that is nearby, but not attached to, a tombstone. However, let’s recognize that this would still be a short-term solution. (When talking about tombstones, “short term” means ten or twenty years.)
I will suggest that the use of latitude and longitude will probably never change and is also non-destructive to the memorials. Even if latitude and longitude were to drop out of favor at some future date, a web site containing that information could easily be converted to use whatever new location identification methods become popular in the future. Using latitude and longitude also allows for searches for information without a personal visit to a (distant) cemetery. I doubt if the use of longitude and latitude will be perfect forever, but it sure sounds good to me for use in the next few decades.
When documenting the past, let’s also look to the future to make sure information will always be available as easily as possible, limited only by our abilities to predict future technologies. And let’s make sure we don’t deface any tombstones!