New Digital Map Expands Access to East End Cemetery

Logo designed for the East End Cemetery Collaboratory by Leslie Steiger.

Years in the making, a searchable map of East End Cemetery is now accessible online. The map, which features drone-captured imagery, is the first digital initiative of the East End Cemetery Collaboratory, a learning community comprising faculty and staff from the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University and members of the Friends of East End. 

When cemetery reclamation began in summer 2013, nearly all of the gravestones had been swallowed by dense vegetation, and burial records were nowhere to be found. Over the years, we have met many descendants searching for loved ones’ graves and helped them locate their plots whenever possible. Some family members remember visiting the graves as children in the 1950s and ’60s. As overgrowth closed in and roads through the cemetery became impassable, they could no longer find their way to them. 

In the past seven years, volunteers have uncovered and documented upwards of 3,200 markers at East End, posting photographs, basic biographical information, and GPS coordinates on FindAGrave.com. Until now, however, there was no easy way to locate specific graves at the cemetery.

That’s where the East End Cemetery Collaboratory comes in. Formally organized in 2017, the Collaboratory emerged from a multidisciplinary group of UR and VCU faculty who created educational projects at the cemetery for their classes and worked side by side with their students on volunteer cleanup days. Students increased the number of GPS points collected each year, and the addition of drone imagery in 2019 dramatically improved the accuracy of the map. Using a GIS app for phones and tablets, it’s now possible to pinpoint the exact position of grave markers at the cemetery. A new hillshade feature highlights depressions identified from small changes in elevation across the cemetery, providing a more accurate estimate of the number of burials. 

While the coronavirus pandemic has slowed East End reclamation efforts, Collaboratory members continue to refine the position of points on the map. We are also hard at work on a comprehensive digital archive centered on the cemetery. It already contains thousands of records for people interred at East End, as well as gravestone analyses, photographs, newspaper articles, and other documents. A beta release is expected by the end of June; a full release by the start of the 2020–21 school year. 

Both the map and the archive mark major steps forward in the documentation of East End Cemetery and the reclamation of its rich history, a vital chapter in the larger story of Richmond and the Commonwealth. Each will be updated as restoration and research continue and additional markers and records are found. 

The digital infrastructure for the map was built by Rob Nelson and Justin Madron/UR Digital Scholarship Lab, Stephanie Spera/UR Department of Geography and the Environment, and Beth Zizzamia and Taylor Holden/UR Spatial Analysis Lab. Data was collected by John Shuck and Erin Hollaway Palmer/Friends of East End, Kristine Grayson and Elizabeth Baughan/University of Richmond, and hundreds of students and volunteers across departments and institutions. Support for the Collaboratory is provided by UR’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, VCU’s Center for Community Engagement and Impact, and the UR School of Arts & Sciences Contested Spaces theme year.

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