Northlandia: Cemetery-walking volunteers keep history, genealogy alive — and online
Members of the website Find A Grave document graves in the Northland.
CLOQUET — "'Nagorski' is the name we're looking for. Ronald Nagorski," Laurie Kelley said as she walked through the G section of Old Calvary Cemetery.
Kelley carried a shovel, kneeling pad, broom and cellphone, which she calls her "tools of the trade" — the "trade" being photographing gravestones for fellow members on the website Find a Grave .
"They recommend not using cleaners on there because you don't want to harm the stones," Kelley said. "Especially if it's an older, softer stone. So I have these things with to just help clear it up a bit. For a lot of people, this is the only photo they've ever seen of their relative's grave."
Kelley is one of millions of volunteers who contribute to Find A Grave and one of a large group based in the Northland. The website was created in 1995 when its founder wanted to share photos of famous people's graves. Today, it's open to all individuals to find, record and present final resting place info with the world. It's run entirely by volunteers like Kelley who take the time to record, photograph and manage memorials for people around the world and region.
Volunteers range widely in their contributions to the site. Kelley has been on the site for seven years and manages 6,656 memorials. One of the largest local contributors to the site, who goes by the username "Duluth Graver," has added 122,000 photos and added 27,577 memorials to the site. "Judy H" up in Cook has added 60,000 memorials to the site in her 12 years working on it.
It's not about me — it's about helping others find someone they're looking for.
"Judy H is legendary," Kelley said. "She actually transferred some of the Cloquet memorials over to me because she said she knew she could trust me to take care of them. I felt honored. She's over 80 years old and still doing it all the time."
While she knew Judy's username, Kelley and the rest of the volunteers have mostly never met. They just chat through the site and send each other corrections and notes to add family members.
That's how most people get into this hobby — by diving into their own family history on the site.
"I'm kind of the keeper of family history," said Find a Grave member Rita Sherepa, of Gnesen Township. "When I'd look up somebody's name, I would sometimes find them on Find a Grave. It helped so much with my family history. ... And I saw that one of the things on there that you could do was take volunteer pictures for people. And to me, that was a wonderful way to give back because I'd gotten so much in my genealogy from there."
Sherepa joined the website 11 years ago. She started taking photographs of graves at her closest local cemeteries, Calvary Cemetery and the Polish Catholic Cemetery on Howard Gnesen Road. She'd print a list of requests, visit the cemetery's superintendent to get a map, and set out finding graves to photograph.
"Over time, I'd get to know the cemeteries better, like OK, if this is Section A and then B and C, why is there suddenly a Section 22?" Sherepa said. "Some of them are just bizarre. But you start to get used to it and you'd be able to find people easier."
For example, Sherepa once found a woman's grandmother's grave despite it not appearing at first glance.
"She knew that she was there. She'd been there as a child and she was able to send me a photograph of where the grave was," Sherepa said. "It happened to be an area of Calvary that had a little boxwood edging around it and I was able to go around that whole section and I found it. It had a nice, big stone; it just hadn't been properly documented. It just slipped through the cracks. That was just so huge to her."
Some people in there died 100 years ago, so probably nobody around here still visits them. But I can clean their stone up and capture it as it looks now so that it can be found in the future.
Because of her unusual hobby, Sherepa ended up earning herself a morbid nickname from her husband, who called her Morticia, as in Morticia Addams of "The Addams Family" TV and movies.
"I finally said he wasn't allowed to call me Morticia any more until he brought me dead flowers like Gomez," Sherepa said. "And he actually did it. He stopped at The Rose Man (a Duluth flower shop) one day and explained why he wanted dead flowers and they even wrapped them in a black ribbon."
Despite the ribbing, Sherepa said she enjoys her time out looking for gravestones.
"It's just really nice. You go out there and enjoy the weather and the nice days and you don't have to go out on the bad ones," Sherepa said. "But you're also doing something for people. It's not about me — it's about helping others find someone they're looking for."
While Sherepa mainly stays at her local haunts, other members like to venture out and check out cemeteries when they travel. Tom Edwards is one such Find a Grave member.
"Sometimes we'll just go out for the day and take a trip somewhere and stop along the way at a cemetery we've never been to before," Edwards said. "And we'll do it as an excursion, to go see something and learn more about that place."
When he's back in Duluth, Edwards also likes to document Calvary Cemetery with his wife. They spent one summer mapping out a section of Calvary where children and poor folks were buried.
"We just spend an hour or so a day mapping it out and documenting it so that people could find their loved ones some day. It's sad, but it's worse if they disappear without a trace and are forgotten," Edwards said.
For volunteer Deanna Glumac, of Carlton, it started with documenting her church's small cemetery, St. Francis Cemetery. She has added memorials and photos for 95% of the cemetery's 150 gravestones. She said it helps her feel connected to her community and honor those who have come before by tidying their gravestones.
"Some people in there died 100 years ago, so probably nobody around here still visits them," Glumac said. "But I can clean their stone up and capture it as it looks now so that it can be found in the future."
This winter she took on a new challenge: Carlton's Hillside Cemetery. She visits the Carlton County Courthouse often to look up info and add it to the site.
"It's turned out to be a way bigger project," Glumac said. "I'm not going to get it done by the time the snow melts, but I'm making good progress. This is my retirement project."
For Kelley, it's also a good way to get to know her new community. She grew up in Silver Bay and has lived in Cloquet for 17 years, but said she learns something new through the site every day.
"You read an obituary and hear about how so-and-so started this business or was one of the first doctors in town," Kelley said. "It just kind of brings history to life, in a weird way."
Kelley knelt to take a photo of Ronald Nagorski's gravestone.
"Now I can add the picture and GPS coordinates to it and the next person can walk right to it. They won't have to search so hard to find Nagorski," she said. "That's rewarding."