TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN
Sandy Jasper, Cemetery Administrator for the Brandon Municipal Cemetery, works to catalogue cemetery data for the City of Brandon's searchable online database of graves. In the summer she photographs headstones so the photos can be put in the database with relevant information on the person the grave belongs to.
Const. John Matthew Murphy died on Nov. 26, 1893, in Brandon, 13 years after he joined the North West Mounted Police.
While his place of birth is still an unknown, his moss-covered headstone in the Brandon Municipal Cemetery was a window into some of the details of his life.
After an audit of the Brandon Municipal Cemetery's veterans' section, two previously unmarked burials will receive headstones.The cemetery was awarded the headstones by the Last Post Fund Unmarked Grave program. In the spring the graves of George Melvin Little, who died in 1991, and Gebhard Charles, who died in 2000, will now be marked.According to cemetery administrator Sandy Jasper, it's likely the family of the deceased couldn't afford a proper headstone.There are more than 1,430 veteran burials in the cemetery's veterans' sections, however others are located in other parts as well.The Last Post program is available to eligible veterans whose graves have not had permanent headstones or foot markers for five years or more, and for those who have not previously received funeral and burial funding from the Last Post Fund or Veterans Affairs Canada.» Brandon Sun
He was buried before the municipality purchased the cemetery land from the Catholic Church in 1906 when proper record keeping began.
But a little sleuthing by cemetery administrator Sandy Jasper was a lot of help for a Calgary-based RCMP researcher looking for a man whose death had been off the grid for almost 120 years.
Findings like this are all part of the process to complete an online database and map of all who are buried in the city’s cemetery — a process the city has been going through since 2009.
In the summer months, photos are taken of each headstone and assigned a proper name in order for it to be linked to a photo of the person before it appears online where anyone is able to search.
"It’s history! And genealogy is more and more popular, people are getting more involved," Jasper said, a self-proclaimed "cemetery nerd."
The city bought the land in 1906 and the first burial took place in 1908, so the records after that are pretty good and the job to put everyone online is relatively simple. But any paper trail before that — like in the case of Const. Murphy’s passing — is "less than comprehensive," Jasper said.
"It’s trickier, but it’s even more rewarding," she said with a stack of 20 or 30 headstone photos beside her that lack pertinent information, such as place of birth or death or suffer from poor spelling.
Burial data was computerized in the 1990s, but this next revolution was to link the data with an online search and map overlay.
"So if you go on there and look for your Aunt Margaret, it points you (to) where she is," Jasper said.
The city can also link the obituary to the person’s profile but that takes up immense research hours to sift through documents from funeral homes and family members, as well as newspaper archives such as those of the Brandon Sun.
Obituaries, if found, are used to easily track down a person’s information, but it’s not the only resource available. Jasper also draws useful background from the Manitoba Genealogical Society, the province’s Vital Statistics Agency and keen local researchers.
The Brandon cemetery just completed its 21,250th burial yesterday since records began being kept in earnest in 1908 — though there are plenty more that aren’t documented — and roughly 30 per cent have been entered into the GIS database.
Jasper sees Brandon as a "pioneer" when it comes to mapping out a cemetery online.
"Before this, there was a very rudimentary web page," said the city’s IT manager, Jason Kelusky.
As the power of Google Maps fell into the hands of IT professionals, the possibility opened up to map the cemetery as the city does with its land assessment information.
"This is how people consume this information now is through maps," Kelusky said, adding that the city has drawn interest from other cities keen on doing the same thing.
"We’ve been contacted by a few different municipalities as to how we did it."
The next step may be to make the database more mobile-friendly, an obvious technological progression for the city.
"It’s great for the people in Brandon, but it’s also valuable for the people who aren’t from around here, trying to find relatives, so they’re not hunting around the cemetery trying to find where their loved one is," Kelusky said.
Laura Crookshanks, the president of the Southwest Genealogical Society, said it’s a great help in beginning any research project.
"I personally used it to find folks that I didn’t actually know were buried in the Brandon cemetery and I can take that information that they’ve got and reach back further," she said.
"It’s a really growing hobby for folks to be looking for ancestors and trying to figure out where they came from."
Tracing back roots takes more than a click of mouse, Crookshanks said, but the cemetery mapping is a great starting point.
"It’s one more piece of the puzzle."
According to the city’s IT department, the website processed 930 searches last month.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 22, 2014