Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Three young Utah women have spent more than 100 hours crouched in Prairie Home Cemetery over recent weeks. Smartphones in hand, the trio – Lilei Leifson, Nicole Matthews and Ashley Jenkins – have been documenting graves throughout the region as part of their missionary experience.
Each day, the trio of 20-year-olds spends several hours taking clear photos of the headstones and the wealth of information they provide. Later they transcribe the names of the deceased, along with birth and death dates, into a database. Finally, they upload their photos and data to the genealogy website BillionGraves.com, as well as FamilySearch.org, the comprehensive ancestry website established by their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The information they and other young missionaries across the country are gathering is available free to others researching their own families’ roots. Visitors can register online and through two smartphone apps, FamilySearch and BillionGraves. Both can be downloaded at no charge to both iPhones and Android devices.
Prairie Home is just the latest of the cemeteries the women and their missionary peers have been cataloging. They estimate about 200 men and women are currently on assignments across the five-state Dakotas Mission headquartered in Bismarck. They are generally rotated between locations every six weeks, going wherever they’re needed, though all three women have been in Moorhead longer. The volunteers have completed similar gravesite research in Fargo, Hawley, Bemidji, Grand Forks, Jamestown and other areas, seeking out smaller and rural cemeteries to add to the growing databases.
“The records are open to anyone who is interested in family history and genealogy,” Lilei says. The work is especially valued by members of the Mormon faith, who believe – Ashley explains – that they can be with their families for eternity. “It’s important to know who they are so we can be linked together,” she continues. “We believe those who have passed on are a lot closer than many think. Family is so central to our lives and our faith. Everything feels connected.”
Nicole adds, “Families are forever, sealed for eternity.” Those no longer alive can be bound by the church’s sealing ordinance when living members stand in for them.
The grave monument documentation has grown in importance, Lilei says, since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the focus of young Mormons’ missions. In normal times, men spend two years and women 18 months sharing and teaching their faith. But the spread of the coronavirus has made home visits and face-to-face meetings too risky to continue. That’s when Scott Howell, the Dakota Mission president, brought the cemetery project to the fore. A former sexton (cemetery superintendent) back in Utah, Lilei says, “He realized this would be an opportunity for us to get out in the fresh air and do something meaningful.”
Members of Lilei’s family have traced some of their lines back to the 1400s, as have Nicole’s grandparents. Ashley says her great-grandmother and other relatives have tracked back at least seven generations.
“This experience has opened my eyes to how connected we are to our families and others who have gone before us,” Ashley muses. “I’ve lived in Cedar City, Utah, all my life and driven by the same cemeteries every day, yet I’d never gone in.”
At the beginning of their missions, none of the three expected they’d be spending the summer in Moorhead. Assignments are selected for each young volunteer by the mission program, not by the missionaries themselves. Ashley had just received her visa to go to Bogota, Colombia, when the pandemic struck. Lilei had been serving in Australia, an experience she loved, for ten months when travel was shut down and all Americans were brought home. Yet none expresses disappointment in this turn of events.
“One of the things this experience teaches you is how to adapt,” she observes. “You can be on your way in a matter of days.” She adds, “This has taught me how to trust in God, and to accept and love people for who they are. I know I will have more confidence after my experience is over, knowing how to tackle life.”
The missionaries welcome suggestions of small or private cemeteries in the area that would benefit from inclusion in the BillionGraves project. To suggest a location, call them at (701) 781-3363.