Exchange Documenting Graves

Ty Smith brushes a headstone May 18 at Calvary Cemetery in Nashville, Tenn. Through his Eagle Scout project of documenting headstones, people will be able to locate and find information about ancestors through BillionGraves.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Brave Uncle Jack fought in the American Civil War, wounded at the battles of Belmont and Shiloh.

He rests here.

Mamie Herd served in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.

She, too, lies here.

Among the thousands buried below the clover and blades of grass at Calvary Cemetery are hundreds of military veterans.

A WWI private, a corporal in the Spanish American War, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who fought in Korea, and others whose stories shape our country’s history. Some are honored with bold headstones, engraved works of art that chronicle their life; others’ memories are nearly worn away by decades of rain and wind.

To 15-year-old Ty Smith, all these men and women deserve to be remembered. So before this Memorial Day he set out — with the help of the local community — to document each of the more than 18,000 graves in the Nashville resting place.

He hopes, that as part of his Eagle Scout project, he will document records that aren’t digitally kept and help people find loved ones lost or long forgotten.

It was his own family’s search for siblings separated generations ago that inspired Smith’s project.

“It’s cool how much people care about that one person that they want to remember them,” Ty says. “You don’t want them to be forgotten, because they’re the people that allowed us our freedoms today.”

Long before the internet was available, or even invented, Ty’s great-grandfather made a discovery while cleaning out his departed parents’ home.

He had a half-sister, a woman he had never met.

It was the 1970s, and records were scarce. He knew only that she was a few years older, she was born in Canada, and she had a unique spelling of her first name, which was Ora.

When he died of a heart attack, his wife took over the mission of searching for the lost sibling. Later, it became the mission of Ty’s mother.

Genealogy had always been very special to their family. They kept handwritten journals where each generation chronicled their life history. But, for more than a decade, Ty’s mom, Amy Smith, couldn’t locate her grandfather’s sister.

Then, just a few years ago, someone digitally transcribed the woman’s death certificate on familysearch.org. Through that record, Amy Smith found that someone else had taken a picture of this lost sister’s grave using an app called BillionGraves.

The information had been transcribed and uploaded to a database, and it allowed Amy Smith and her family to see where her grandfather’s sister had been laid to rest in Canada.

“There’s just peace in knowing the truth,” she says.

Just as Ty’s family found their long-lost relative, Ty wanted to help community members find the information they needed to discover or learn more about loved ones.

That is why he focused his Eagle Scout project on documenting all the graves at Calvary Cemetery.

“I could be helping so many people like our family who are looking for someone they can’t find,” Ty says. “They are just looking for confirmation, and they want to seek knowledge.”

The community gathered last weekend with one mission — photograph and record the headstones of the buried.

The little kids swept off the graves. High school students from Mt. Juliet volunteered, earning hours toward Tennessee Promise scholarships. Members of the Smiths’ church joined.

One older man, a stranger to the Smith family, also came to help, hoping to find his own grandfather’s grave.

The process was simple: They just had to photograph the headstones in the area Ty assigned to them and upload the pictures to the BillionGraves app. From there, other volunteers would type in what had been carved in the stone, making it digitally accessible in searches worldwide.

Some headstones were in bad shape; others had a lot of detail, telling a brief story. There were at least 200 documented veterans who fought in Desert Storm and the Vietnam, Korea and world wars.

Mike Wilkins, the deacon and manager of the Calvary Cemetery, believes that number is deceptively low. Because it was so common for men to serve in the military 50 or more years ago, they were not always listed as veterans in their official burial documentation.

Wilkins said this is especially true of individuals who served during and before World War II. He believes there are closer to 3,000 to 5,000 veterans buried at Calvary who served in one of the branches of the U.S. military.

As Ty’s mom, Amy Smith, walked through the cemetery, she saw a few graves specifically marked the battle in which a veteran had died, some buried next to their parents. It made her heart hurt to think of moms losing their children to war.

Moss crawled over other headstones, covering full names and turning them into abbreviations. When one of the memorials was cleaned, revealing the last letters in the name “Matthew Mc,” Amy Smith said the full name aloud.

“We all want to be remembered,” she says. “It was neat to give his name back.”

And, she said, to thank them for being a part of building this city.

“What a part of history to see the people who helped make Nashville what it is today,” she says.

For Ty, it was a humbling moment to see the graves of decorated Civil War, World War I and World War II veterans. The fancy gravestones were “amazing to look at,” he says. But what stood out more were those stones that had almost completely eroded.

“It’s sad to think that because those markers have not been preserved, the memory of those individuals has faded away,” he says.

The aspiring Eagle Scout from Mt. Juliet High School hopes his project will preserve that record before it is lost — and help the history of those who served endure.