PARK RAPIDS, Minn. — Missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have been traveling throughout North Dakota, South Dakota and parts of Minnesota, Montana and Nebraska during the past year, photographing graves at local cemeteries and uploading the images to a database using the BillionGraves app or going to the website billiongraves.com.
The app takes pictures of the graves and has built-in GPS pinpointing where the grave is located. Even if all of the information on the gravestone was not legible due to weathering, a picture was taken anyway to show what information was visible, whether the name or date.
According to the BillionGraves website, this is the world's largest resource for searchable GPS cemetery data. Some of those registered on the site also submit headstone images from cemeteries to add to the website’s database.
Participation in the Billion Graves project started when much of the organization’s missionary outreach ground to a halt with the start of the pandemic.
“We want to give people better access to their ancestors’ graves and help them with their genealogy work,” missionary Isaac Moulding said. “I’m originally from Utah and part of a group that goes on mission trips for two years. This project was a big part of our mission during COVID, because it was something we could do outdoors while staying socially distant. We went to pretty much every county in North Dakota, South Dakota and the part of Minnesota that we cover, as well as a little bit of Montana and Nebraska.
"The app was already out there and we just decided to take part in it and take pictures in as many cemeteries as possible to help people out.”
People can get important information from these headstones, such as dates of births and deaths, while the missionaries can offer help in the communities they visit.
“At the local Walmart we’ll help people load their groceries into their car," Moulding said. "If we saw someone mowing their lawn or working on their car at the side of the road we would offer to help them. We also do weeding or yard work. The mission trips are a full-time thing serving people for those two years. I met a lot of cool people around Park Rapids, just talking to them at gas stations and on the street.”
Moulding said his mission group moved around the region frequently.
The organization’s 200 missionaries in those five states also work on reservations. “A lot of people there need our help and service,” he said. “I believe we have some missionaries who are on the White Earth Reservation, too.”
Moulding said genealogy is very important to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We value getting to know our ancestors and what they went through,” he said. “We can learn from their experiences to help us in our lives. We love genealogy work because we have a temple we go to in our church and things we can do, sacred ordinances for our ancestors who have passed away to help them in their afterlife.
“I can trace my genealogy back 10 generations. We’ve done a lot of work on my family tree. Some of my ancestors were kings in England and the Netherlands. If I hadn’t done the genealogy work, I would never have known this.”
He said the study of genealogy can benefit anyone, no matter what they believe.
“Finding the dates on these graves helps people who are looking for basic information, like a name and a date to get started,” he said. “From there they can use ancestry.com or familysearch.com to go in and do even more research to connect the dots. Hopefully our project will help a lot of people get started learning more about their ancestors. That was our goal.”