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Graving: Connecting Families with Their Ancestors – Brandon Wofford-Asuncion (POY 049)

Graving is a hobby where people visit graves for fun. Brandon Wofford-Asuncion uses it to help others find lost relatives near San Francisco.

Graving is a hobby where people visit graves for fun. Brandon Wofford-Asuncion uses it to help others find lost relatives near San Francisco.

Episode Notes

This month, I’d like to introduce you to Brandon Wofford-Asuncion. He lives in Daly City, right next door to San Francisco. You can usually catch him wandering around the Bay Area’s cemeteries and graveyards in his spare time. He’s documented thousands of gravestones online since he was a young boy, some on his own but many of them to fill online requests.

The most popular website for gravers as Brandon will mention is FindaGrave.com, where users can ask for help with finding the gravesites of their loved ones. People researching their family histories often go there and request this information for a couple of reasons: to confirm where they came from, and to find the final resting places of their ancestors. It can be reassuring and a relief when we can clear up these mysteries about our past, so Brandon and others like him are performing a unique service. Brandon also emphasized that he sees paying respect to the dead as a form of spiritual fulfillment. I’ll let him talk about that.

Here’s my conversation with Brandon Wofford-Asuncion, cemetery enthusiast from Daly City, California.

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Interview Transcript (Draft)

Please note: Microsoft 365 generated the transcript below. Parts have been lightly edited but it may be incomplete.

Josh
I have been fascinated by this concept of graving for a while. I didn’t know that there was a term for it. The idea of there being this network of volunteers that go out and help people that are looking for particular gravestones around the country or even around the world? It’s something I thought about getting into, but I’ve always felt weird about just wandering into a cemetery or graveyard and just kind of poking around, especially if I’m just getting started. How did you get started in this type of hobby?

Brandon
I really got started as a lot of people do through family history. I was very young. I was like 6 or 7 years old and my grandma happened to bring out this file of like someone had researched her family history and my grandparents and my mom’s side were from Oklahoma, and we used to go there every summer, and I was just fascinated looking at these names and dates. You know, and asking about her grandparents and her aunts and uncles and then she said, well, you know, in the small rural community she grew up in, which isn’t even on a map. There was a cemetery and basically her entire family was buried there. Basically anyone that hadn’t moved to California. And so the next summer we went there. Her older brother took us out there and he was going to the cemetery and he used to help dig the graves. And he was saying. All about each of these different people. This is this uncle. This is this aunt. This is this cousin you know. And I was just fascinated. Quiet in that history that she had some ladies from the LDS Mormon church had gone out in the 60s and transcribed every tombstone. That was there at the time and you know, a lot of them since the 60s had vanished, decayed or gotten broken. And so I was just kind of really intrigued by that. I was like, I kind of, I kind of want to do that, you know, it that helped me so much in my exploration of family history. I want to help other people, too.

Josh
Right. So this is me assuming I guess maybe you started transcribing things with your family or you just you just learned the history of your family through going to the graveyard. Is that what I’m understanding?

Brandon
I mean, I guess it kind of went hand in hand. So I was, you know, doing research. And this is like late 90s, early 2000s, so not a lot was online yet compared to. Now and I’m I started this one like 7 or 8 years old with my grandparents. I wanted to, you know, research their families. And so one of the most concrete ways to do that at the time was to go to the cemeteries to get the names and dates because I didn’t have access to all the records we do now. Yeah. So we would go to where they knew different aunts and uncles or family members were buried and we would search for their graves so we could get whatever information we could from the gravestones. And in some cases, depending on where in the country. People lived, you know, a gravestone might be the only physical proof almost that that person never existed, especially when it comes like babies that may have not been counted in other records. You know, if their gravestone would still exist from, you know, the 1800s or the 1900s, that might be the only thing. Like documentation if you will. That they that they lived.

Josh
Yeah, I found that in my own research too, because I’ve done some research into my own family background. Some of the records, like you said, the they only exist as gravestones, so if there’s no transcription of that or online record of that, you know, if you’re on a website like ancestry or one of those, it can be tough or even impossible to find the existence of that person at all.

Brandon
Right. And through looking at grave records, I’ve, you know, found my grandma, her, her grandparents. I found out that they had a child that nobody, you know, living still knew about, that was buried at, like, a, you know, an obscure different cemetery than the rest of the. Family ones and just through reading through like the grave transcriptions on genealogy websites I had found. You know, such and such child the daughter of and then her grandparents names. And you know, so it really can lead to these discoveries that we didn’t know before.

Josh
Yeah. So you started out working on your own family’s history. How did that transition into you working to help other people with their family history?

Brandon
Well, so I mean I think we had discussed previously the website findagrave. And it’s not the only one out there. I think there’s. Like a billion graves and lots of different websites. But I would say find the graves, probably now the biggest one and most commonly known and used. Back when I got started now 20 years ago. On find a. Grave it was a. Sight devoted for people looking for famous graves. Which? Which is a another thing in its own. You know, people searching for celebrities very.

Josh
Yes, right.

Brandon
People had started adding their own relatives and at the time there really weren’t many at all. So I started adding mine and then there was a feature where people could request to volunteer to go to a certain cemetery and look for their relative. And so I knew how much that had helped me when I was. Doing my own research so I thought, well, you know, if I’m going to the cemetery anyway, why don’t I see who needs a volunteer request? And so that’s really how it started, is just, you know, taking these random pictures for other people.

Josh
Do you have a favorite story of that type of experience where you’re out looking maybe looking for one grave and then you stumble upon something else? Or even? Like I know the story that was featured on fire and Grey’s website, that was a good one as far as you getting involved in kind of like the family history of somebody else. And it seemed like it would have been really gratifying to be a part of it.

Brandon
I have a ton of stories of those. Similar to that I think some of the most gratifying have been people contacting me from other countries looking who found, you know, maybe a long lost great grandfather that migrated to the US and they. You know, died and they never knew what happened to them or searching for a long lost immigrant relatives that they didn’t know where they were. Buried and things. Like that but. I had worked with a an organization in Stockton, so my on my dad’s side. My grandpa was early Filipino immigrant and so I worked with this organization doing some research on some of these other early. Filipino immigrants in California. And I would go and try to find where they were buried. There was this one I was searching for that I just knew was buried at the Catholic cemetery in Stockton, CA. But then they had no record of this person. And so I couldn’t find any records of this person where he was buried. But I happen to go to another cemetery where my family is buried. A very large. One you know several, you know, 50,000 graves, not the kind that. You just stumble upon someone. I happened to be walking on like a hot day across from 1 relative to another and I stopped under a tree and I looked down and the name of the person I had been looking for was staring back. At me.

Josh
That’s wild.

Brandon
And just like. A little small tombstone, like one of the ones that they. Would use to. Mark Graves that nobody else purchased a stone for and this is a huge cemetery, I wasn’t looking for the person didn’t know they would be there, but then the crazy thing was the same. Exact thing happened to me two more times. After that. So it can get kind of wild.

Josh
Sounds like a lot of opportunities to be surprised when you’re walking through a graveyard or cemetery, I should say, when with that many gravestones.

Brandon
Oh yeah, definitely. And especially in the older ones or where they’re a little less kind of corporate like the, you know, the newer style big cemeteries, some of the some of the gravestones can offer interesting stories on them themselves. I live now in Daly City, near San Francisco, and it’s adjacent to a town called Cuomo, which is San Francisco’s necropolis, where all the cemeteries of San Francisco were moved to in the early 19 early last century. But.

Josh
Yeah. I was gonna ask you about Karma because I know you spent a lot of time there.

Brandon
I am just about maybe like a mile down the road from the first Coleman Cemetery. But I was in one of the mausoleums doing some volunteer request yesterday, and I looked at. There was one. There was this. Old mausoleum wall inscription from like the 1920s and it and it’s and you know the Old English kind of biblical font. He believeth in the heaven, but not in a hell. It’s like that’s a. Interesting thing to put on a modeling description.

Josh
Yeah, I know. I’ve seen some people put cookie recipes or, you know, old photos. But yeah, that that sounds like a, a rather definite statement to make on your gravestone.

Brandon
Definitely, there’s a lot, not just in like a historical sense, but in a in a general interest sense as well. If somebody wanted to visit a local cemetery and look around, I have to say it’s not as interesting at some of the, you know, newer business, you know, park like cemeteries. Where you know, with all the flat tombstones, it’s a lot more interesting where there’s older.

Josh
I guess I didn’t realize there was a difference, so it sounds like older cemeteries are visibly different than newer cemeteries. Is that right? I mean, generally speaking.

Brandon
Yeah. So you know in the late 1800s, early 1900s, during the Garden City movement, there would be a trend to make, like park like cemeteries with, you know, manicured lawns and trees and the epitome of that is, like the forest lawn cemeteries in LA. If you’ve ever heard of. Those where it’s just like a huge Memorial Park where every stone is flat flush with the ground when you look out it just looks. Like a big. Park and it doesn’t look like a graveyard per say, with little tall standing tombstones. And so, you know, really in the 1900s that became the norm for these business cemeteries because they’re easier to mow, easier to upkeep than the standing old style gravestones, but certainly not across the board that you still have some of the. Those, especially when it comes to like local community cemeteries and older cemeteries, but the ones with the lawns and the flat gravestones for you know, miles aren’t as interesting to walk through.

Josh
Now you got me interested. I wonder if there’s a book or something I could read about the history of, I don’t know the norms around cemeteries and burials. And in the US it just sounds like something that would be fascinating or has a lot of evolution that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought about because I haven’t been exposed to it.

Brandon
Definitely and. Another feature, especially here in the US that we can appreciate, is different cultural burial practices, too. And you know, since we’ve had immigrants from all over the world, we get different types of cemetery and burial practices here. You can really find a huge variety. Especially in some of the like old like I say, old world style like Italian cemeteries. You can find these like. Big above ground tombs that you know whole families will be in or we think about, like down in Louisiana. And like they have like the above ground graves for practical reasons because of the water table. You know, here in in California, I, a lot of my research and work that I’ve done has been with different Asian American cemetery areas. So you know, there’s a really fascinating history of Chinese burial especially. Up in the West Coast. Or newer ones too, like Vietnamese burials, you know, are also can be really interesting and just a lot of different cultures across the board will have different, you know, different styles of tombstones, different styles of burials. You could see it a lot more across the US.

Josh
Yeah. You mentioned getting involved with certain organizations in the Bay Area that are related to Asian American family history, genealogy, cemeteries, that sort of thing. How do you find organizations like that to get involved with, so say for? Example, if I was looking for a good reason to start graving in my area, I might look for a local organization is that is that kind of an Ave. you went down to getting involved in your area.

Brandon
Well, in my case it was a little different because they found me. Yeah, so.

Josh
Ohh I see.

Brandon
When I started, I guess you could say graving in the Manteca Stockton area where I grew up. There was a A local Chinese cemetery nearby that didn’t have any records on Findagrave. And so I went out there and took a bunch of pictures. I was really interested by it. I didn’t have any Chinese background, but like a lot of the Asian American communities, especially on the West Coast, their histories are very adjacent, like the Chinese, Japanese and Filipino communities. They were faced the same issues, same prejudices and lived in the same areas. So I went out and took a few pictures and I happened to maybe a year later be contacted by somebody from that organization that ran that cemetery and. They said hey. We saw that you posted some pictures on find a grave. Do you think you could come out? And take more and post more. Because we’re trying. To document the cemetery. And so I. Did that and kind of helped document that cemetery and when I moved here I got contacted by some Chinese cemetery organizations here that had seen some of that work and asked me to help them document some of these cemeteries so.

Josh
Is that all through findagrave or are there other avenues that people use to contact you?

Brandon
A lot of people have found me on finding great, but some of these projects weren’t necessarily for find a grave.

Josh
Gotcha. OK.

Brandon
So there this there was a group here in the Bay Area that was working to or I guess they’re still working to transcribe a lot of old Chinese tombstones and to get the genealogical info. Some of these may be the only record of that person and we know that a lot of these. Early immigrants from China to the US didn’t have much documentation. What documentation there was. Whoever was doing it, you know, had no idea how to spell names or. For some people, it’s nearly impossible to trace their ancestry because it’s the documentation is just so sporadic, so wrong.

Josh
And I can imagine the names may have been anglicized one way, or spelled another way, translate it a different way so that could further complicate the research process for a lot of people.

Brandon
Right. And so for a lot of these people on their gravestones, it’ll say what village they came from in, in China. And so that may be finding that gravestone may be the only way that they can find where specifically their ancestors came. From for Chinese genealogy, they have really extensive record keeping in China, but not for the people who left and came here. So if they can a lot of times if they can find that tombstone of that immigrant ancestor and find the village that they came from. They can go back. And link themselves to. You know, hundreds of years of genealogy. Where at that gravestone could be the only link to finding that you know. Opening up that whole, that whole side of their genealogy.

Josh
And I can imagine you’ve been involved in a lot of cases like that where you had a request and you went out and were able to provide the information that a family might have needed to see what their roots were or who their ancestors were.

Brandon
Definitely. And the story you were talking about earlier that was featured on the FINDAGRAVE newsletter, whatever it was, one of my favorite cemeteries here is this very small, very remote. Kind of like up on a hill by itself, cemetery called the Chinese Christian Cemetery, and it was specifically for individuals in Chinatown, San Francisco that had converted through different mission efforts to different forms of Christianity and just for a little background, predominantly in in those days. Someone from who would immigrate from China, they would be buried and then several years later exhumed and their bones sent back to China. Yeah. So a lot of early graves don’t exist because a lot of people were eventually sent back. However, a lot of people who became Christian kind of cut that link. So some of the oldest gravestones can be found in, in this cemetery that go back further than some of the others. So I had photographed some of these early gravestones. And I was contacted by a lady who said they had been searching for her father’s grave his entire life and her entire. Life her grandfather had died when her father was, I think, like three or four years old. And they had a picture from the 1920s of the gravestone and it just showed. It on a hill and. They knew it. Was on a hill somewhere near San Francisco, and she said that for years she had relatives who would go to. Because there’s several Chinese only cemeteries here, and several that have Chinese sections, and she said she had relatives that searched and searched for decades and they were never able to find her grandfather’s grave.

Josh
Yeah, it sounds like a very faint clue.

Brandon
You’re right, right. And one day she happened to type his name in on ancestry, and it linked it to the find a. Grade record. And she was able to find his grave and find you know that village. But the crazy thing was that it turned out she. Lives on the. Same St. as my grandparents in mantika. Two blocks down, I grew up two blocks from her and her dad was the pharmacist in the town I grew up in and my family knew that. No, it was and my. Mom actually went to high school with her bro.

Josh
So small world again. We’re talking about it being a small world earlier.

Brandon
It definitely is.

Josh
How funny. If people wanted to get involved after they hear this conversation, if they think ohh, you know, I might like to take on some of these volunteer requests or become a volunteer myself. How would you recommend somebody get started?

Brandon
It’s kind of interesting because now it’s pretty saturated, you know, so there’s a lot of a lot of people in this and a lot of people doing volunteer requests specifically, I mean one Ave. is, you know, going out find a grave signing up and looking at the profiles for different cemeteries and seeing where there’s. Requests for graves you gotta keep in mind that a lot of older graves are not marked. You. You’re not always gonna find what you’re looking for, but. I would definitely recommend everybody taking a visit to their the oldest cemetery near where they live. If they never have just to start out and kind of just get a feel like because for me there’s also like a spiritual level to it too because you’re not just looking at. Graves, you’re remembering people who came before, you know, and honoring their memory. Great. I think there’s nothing better you could do to honor somebody than to, you know, make sure that their final resting place is, is remembered and cared for and that that ultimately is, you know, what a lot of the graving records has been, you know, for is to make sure that peoples. Resting places are preserved, especially in these older cemeteries. It’s so easy for a gravestone to get destroyed or weathered, or, you know a lot of graves started out as just with wooden markers or hand or, you know, hand. And made clay markers and those do not stand up to the. Elements, so I would definitely recommend everyone you know getting involved with their local older cemeteries if there are one, or even just checking it out and seeing who are the people living. In my area. And, you know, 100 years ago, 200 years ago.

Josh
Are there any precautions that people should? Be aware of.

Brandon
I mean, I guess that would be dependent on the area that you’re in, but? Definitely there are some business cemeteries that don’t allow photography or have like loitering policies and people walking around. Usually that would be posted. So that’s definitely something to check out first.

Josh
Oh, I see. Yeah, I guess I was wondering if you’ve ever encountered anything like that. If it’s posted, then it’s easy to see that those kinds of things are in.

Brandon
Right. I’ve been told before no pictures allowed here.

Josh
OK, so like I said, that’s something to be aware of.

Brandon
Right, right. If you’re photographing a lot, I always try to be careful photographing when people are around. For some people, they’re visiting their deceased relative, and it’s a negative experience. Seeing somebody photograph graves near there presents all sorts of questions. Negative questions.

Josh
Yeah, right, I understand that.

Where can people follow you online if they wanted to?

Brandon
I have a cemetery photography Instagram, @thewanderinggraver. Now people can contact me, ask questions, whatever, if they have any additional things they want to know.

JM
OK.

Brandon
For the record, I don’t claim to be any type of expert in this category. It’s always been something out of pure curiosity and personal interest, and a lot of reading on my own. Everything is just purely from my own perspective. No claims to being an expert in any of this.

Josh
Of course not. OK, thank you for saying that.

Well, I will let you go. I appreciate your time and I’ll be in touch.

Brandon
Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this. Thank you for letting me be a part.

Josh
This is The Plural of You. I’m Josh Morgan, and the show’s website, is pluralofyou.org. That’s all for now. Thank you for being kind today. Take care.