Times Leader Arts & Entertainment

Society works to compile, index burial records

June 14, 1998

Times Leader Staff Writer

The penciled, fading and sometimes water-soaked pages are not easy to read.

Still, a small group of researchers from the Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society has been poring over cemetery, church and funeral home records from all over Luzerne County for months now.

Their goal: To compile and index all these now-scattered records in one central repository, so that genealogical researchers will someday be able to access them quickly.

"I wish we could say we are going to be done next year," said Tammy Lamb, society president. "But there's no way you can put a timetable on it. We are working as fast as we can with the manpower we have."

The procedure is time-consuming. Typically, society volunteers borrow a set of cemetery records on a Friday and spend the weekend photographing them, page by page or index card by index card, for transfer to reels of microfilm.

Former president Dean Sawyer then takes the film to be developed, and the records are quickly returned to the cemetery. Then the indexing begins as volunteers go over the reels of microfilm and put all names on 3-by-5 index cards. After that, the data on the cards are typed into a computer disc.

"It's not something that happens overnight," said Lamb. "It's a long, drawn-out process."

Problems are endless. Records of some cemeteries are difficult to locate, sometimes because the burial grounds have been closed or even abandoned for years.

A few are overwhelming by their sheer size. The group has finished microfilming but is still indexing records for St. Mary's Cemetery, the huge Roman Catholic cemetery in Hanover Township with its approximately 58,000 burials. Many unknowns are buried there, hundreds of remains moved from an earlier cemetery on Darling Street in Wilkes-Barre in the late 19th century and never recorded by name.

"We've had problems with a lot of them," said Lamb. "Some records are illegible. The writing is pencil, which over time fades out. We've had pages that were wet, which makes them difficult for reading."

The task is immense. More than 300 cemeteries, some of them obscure, have been identified in the county. Churches over the years have been too numerous to count, and a check of the Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton telephone books show more than 100 funeral homes existing today.

But progress is being made. The group has finished indexing for the Forty Fort, Wyoming, Hazleton and Nanticoke City cemeteries. Wilkes-Barre's Hollenback Cemetery has at least been alphabetized. Funeral and burial records of some of the churches and funeral homes have been done as well.

While some cemetery officials are leery of letting the precious records out of their sight, they have been generally cooperative.

"We've had a wonderful response, and I hope it continues," said Lamb. "Most of the cemeteries realize the importance of the records. Especially since the last flood scare, they realize they can lose them."

But even when all the microfilming and indexing are completed, the society will still need a place to store the records and make them available to the membership. Operations and storage of books and records are now divided among members' private homes.

What the society needs long-term is a headquarters -- a good-size room or a set of rooms where all its materials can be stored and members can access them.

In the meantime, the work of finding records and then microfilming and computerizing them goes on. Lamb concedes that the work so far has made just "a very small dent" in the mountain of material that must be compiled. The group needs more volunteers, a second microfilm reader, money that can help with the endless costs of developing film, buying computer discs and keeping the equipment in repair.

Still, Lamb is optimistic. "Once we finish Luzerne, we will do other counties," she said. "It's been rough, but we've come a long way."

. . .

Want to help the society with its project? Contact the Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society Inc., P.O. Box 1776, Shavertown, Pa. 18708-0776. Membership is $15 a year, and it gives you access to their files and library as well as the informative quarterly newsletter and various publications.

AVirginian with area roots is trying to link up with anybody related to his ancestors who lived in Bradford County in the 19th century.

Wayne P. Lawson's ancestors, Robert C. Lawson (born 1853) and Frances A. Brooks Lawson (born 1855) had moved to Virginia by 1880. They had at least three children born in Pennsylvania, and definitely three moved with them to Virginia. Those three were Charles Booth Lawson (born 1874), Mattie B. Lawson (born 1875) and Fannie E. Lawson (born 1880).

The Census of 1880 for Virginia says only that the Lawsons had come from Bradford County, Pa. -- no town listed.

I'm sending Lawson some material about research contacts there. Anyone with information may reach Wayne P. Lawson at P.O. Box 25, Callao, Va. 22435.

The study of genealogy has changed much over the past century. From painfully slow research in dusty volumes and yellowed letters it has moved to cyberspace, with data and fellow researchers from all over the world available almost instantly. From collecting proof that enables the researcher to join a hereditary society, it has turned to the discovery of unknown relatives and the unearthing of a family's very origins in the Old World.

But one thing has not changed: the pleasure of discovering that one's ancestors were real, live people, deserving of honor for their sometimes fierce struggles to create the good lives we their descendants enjoy.

More than 100 years ago, the Wilkes-Barre Record, an ancestor of The Times Leader, took favorable note of the then-new groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and saw in them a lesson for everyone. Said the Record, "In fact, every person should compile and preserve such a family record, for it may be of great value to future generations, if not to themselves."

Amen to that.

News notes:

  • The Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society will have no meetings June through August, as usual. Meetings will resume in September.

  • Remember, this column is now accessible through your computer at www.leader.net. Then click on "Arts and Entertainment."

  • Have you solved some tough genealogical problems in your research? Do you have some tips you'd like to share with others? Would you like to report a success story? Drop me a line here at the paper. I'll get in touch with you and help you bring the benefits of your experience to others.

    © 1998 The Times Leader