GUY RAZ, host:
For those of you who don't expect to live forever, there's another form of immortality available that requires the Internet, a camera and a gravestone. Since 1995, a group called FindAGrave has been sending volunteers out to trudge through cemeteries and photograph tombstones.
The group links people up from all over the country, all over the world, even, who want to see the places their family members are buried but don't have the cash to get there themselves. We sent out our intern, Lauren Silverman, to Arlington National Cemetery, to investigate.
LAUREN SILVERMAN: Monday through Friday, Anne Cady(ph) is an aerospace engineer for a major global defense company, but come Saturday, she takes the subway to the cemetery and she becomes a grave hunter.
Ms. ANNE CADY (Aerospace Engineer): People don't really understand it. Some people think its kind of ghoulish. You know, others totally understand that its just very peaceful. I've always enjoyed being out in cemeteries and mixing that with my love of puzzles, you know, there couldn't be anything better.
SILVERMAN: And one kind of puzzle Anne Cady never gets tired of solving is the family tree. Today, she's hot on the trail of a World War I veteran who volunteered to serve in France in 1918.
There are thousands of people like Anne Cady who contribute to the Find A Grave project. It all started with a man named Jim Tipton. He was obsessed with finding famous people's tombstones. So about 15 years ago, he started FindAGrave as a place to put up photos of tombstones like Al Capone's and Karl Marx's. And then all of a sudden, people started putting up pictures of tombstones with only marginally famous names on them.
Mr. JIM TIPTON (Founder, FindAGrave.com): And at some point, I said: Im kind of sick of drawing this line of who is famous and who isn't. I'm just going to accept everyone.
SILVERMAN: Tipton said that opened the floodgates.
Mr. TIPTON: We're now adding names at, you know, 40,000 a day or something like that, which is higher than the death rate in the U.S. So were kind of gaining ground on U.S. burials.
SILVERMAN: So on this morning, Anne Cady is looking for five graves, including Jesse Veitch's. He's the World War I vet who fought in France.
Ms. TEDDI SMITH: Unfortunately, he died probably six or seven years before I was born, and I never knew him.
SILVERMAN: That's Teddi Smith(ph), Jesse Veitch's cousin. Smith lives in Florida, and about a month ago, she emailed FindAGrave to see if someone in the D.C. area would snap a photo of his tombstone.
Ms. SMITH: I get an attachment, and I don't know if I can explain this. There's an emotional attachment that you get when you actually see the picture of a grave marker, and you can put that in your family tree, and theyre no longer just a name and some dates.
SILVERMAN: Teddi Smith is 63, and she started tracking her family history almost a decade ago.
Ms. SMITH: I would love to be able to sit down with my mother at this point and ask her a zillion questions, but those are questions that I'll never get answered.
SILVERMAN: Smith's parents died when she was 20. So she's had to learn about a lot of her family through Web sites like FindAGrave.
Back at the cemetery, Anne Cady knows she's getting close to Jesse Veitch.
Ms. CADY: Most of Section 18, and it's also sometimes known as Section WWW or EUR, is World War I.
SILVERMAN: After she glances at her notes, she says the number on his tombstone should be lucky number 1556.
Ms. CADY: Thirty-six, 41. Yo, 1556. Let us see. And we have Jesse Veitch.
SILVERMAN: But there was one problem. I thought it was Veitch.
Ms. CADY: It may be Veitch.
SILVERMAN: It says Veith on there.
Ms. CADY: These stones are not always perfectly right. They did kind of a less-than-pristine job in getting names right.
SILVERMAN: So it could be wrong.
Ms. CADY: Oh, very much so.
SILVERMAN: Still, she took a few photos.
Ms. CADY: And the close-up, straight on.
SILVERMAN: So right when I got back, I called Teddi Smith and told her to check for updates on the FindAGrave Web site.
Ms. SMITH: Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness. That is just beautiful. I have goosebumps everywhere.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SILVERMAN: The one thing, the one question I had was - look at his last name.
Ms. SMITH: Yeah, it's misspelled, but yeah, that's him.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SILVERMAN: The good news is that Teddi Smith can call up Arlington National Cemetery and get a new headstone with the right spelling. The bad news is that once that headstone is put up, she says she's going to want another photo. Lauren Silverman, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.