© 2002-2014 by Leona L. Gustafson

The newspaper article and photo on this page appeared in The Columbus Dispatch and has been reproduced here with permission from Andy Murphy, Managing Editor.  All copyright restrictions apply.

Couple preserve cemeteries online
Monday, May 13, 2002
Dispatch Staff Reporter
Fred Squillante / Dispatch

Dave and Leona Gustafson examine a grave in the Hart family cemetery in Hilliard. Mrs. Gustafson's Web site has information taken from tombstones.

A passion for genealogy, a husband with a digital camera and a Web site make Leona Gustafson a potent weapon in the battle to track down the past before it disappears.

The Internet has made it easier for ancestor hunters everywhere to get to government records, such as birth and death certificates, in distant locales without leaving home.

But what if the only known record of a person's existence is a crumbling tombstone in a long-abandoned family cemetery half a continent away?

If that cemetery is anywhere near Columbus, the hunter might be in luck.

Through her Web site, Gustafson, 61, offers to photograph tombstones in and around Franklin County for any fellow genealogist who knows where a grave is but can't visit it in person.

Gustafson provides the service free when she can find the time, often with the help of her husband, Dave. It evidently fills a need: She currently has a request from a woman in North Dakota to photograph 14 graves in Franklin, Madison and Union counties.

Mrs. Gustafson also has made it her business to photograph all tombstones in abandoned cemeteries and to catalog them on her site. Deterioration, development and vandals make her work urgent.

"Every one of them, eventually, will be gone,'' she said.

She's heard of a graveyard on the property of a local quarry that has headstones sinking almost completely into the ground but hasn't gone there yet to check it out.

The Web site isn't devoted exclusively to the little-known. The Gustafsons also have photographed dozens of headstones in Green Lawn Cemetery, Columbus' best- known. The names are alphabetized, with asterisks and extra information next to those of the many notable residents buried there.

Mr. and Mrs. Gustafson are uniquely suited for her quest.

The business is largely her baby, though Mr. Gustafson, 64, came up with the camera and often goes with his wife to the cemeteries.

He oversees the electronic-mapping systems for the Franklin County auditor's office and literally knows where the bodies are buried.

He has pored over all the digital aerial photographs that make up the county's geographic-information system.

"I know where all the cemeteries in Franklin County are," he said.

The couple recently returned with camera and tape recorder to the Hart family cemetery off Lacon Road in Hilliard.

Hidden amid a sea of industrial buildings and tractor-trailers, the plot showed up on a county photograph, but an easy way to get there didn't.

When Mr. Gustafson finally found his way down a winding road between the buildings, men working feet from the cemetery said they had no idea it was there.

The cemetery clearly isn't abandoned. There's a like-new wooden privacy fence surrounding it, and a modern-looking brick monument that's about 4 feet wide and 4 feet tall dominates the area. However, the half-dozen or so tombstones, which are mostly crumbling and unreadable, aren't recorded anywhere.

Once Mrs. Gustafson adds them to her site, they will be.

Although she's fairly clinical about the work, the occasional tombstone tale still touches her.

In Clover Cemetery in Prairie Township, one stone of a Civil War soldier who died at home of his injuries bears an inscription from his wife.

Next to it, a smaller tombstone bears the same name. It marks the grave of a son born the day his father died. The child died exactly four months later.

"You have to feel for that woman,'' Mrs. Gustafson said.

For all the peaceful glades she's visited and inspiring inscriptions she's read, though, Mrs. Gustafson doesn't have a favorite spot or tombstone style picked out for her and her husband.

It's the information, not the graves, she cares for most.

"We're going to be cremated,'' she said matter-of-factly. "We live in the age of records!''

The address of Leona Gustafson's Franklin County cemeteries Web site is http://www.genealogybug.net/Franklin_Cemeteries/index.html