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Scouts helping to digitize the dead

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FORT SAM HOUSTON — For his Eagle Scout project, Hunter Boyer decided to help digitize the 141,000-plus names of people buried in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he appreciates genealogy and believes in the eternal bonds of families.

Yet key to his project has been an app called “BillionGraves” that uses photos of headstones taken with mobile devices, tags them with GPS locations and stores them into a searchable online database.

Boyer led about 150 volunteers May 31 to blanket the Fort Sam cemetery and pump out nearly 30,000 photos of headstones for BillionGraves.

“These people have lived their lives and may be lost here in the world and need to be found,” Boyer, 15, a sophomore this fall at Warren High School, told the San Antonio Express-News. “We’re here to bring them back to the eyes of the world again.”

Boyer’s effort is part of a pilot program by Mormons started April 1 in south central Texas. Individual congregants, their families and Mormon groups have been visiting local cemeteries, responding to the app’s goal for grass-roots volunteers to create an online map of the world’s gravesites.

On July 1, Mormon leaders plan to officially invite congregations in North America, Australia and other countries to do this work. The LDS genealogy department chose the San Antonio-Austin region to launch the pilot program because of its warmer weather and a personal connection between a staff member and the local Mormon community.

Headstones are highly credible records in genealogical studies but are threatened by deterioration and in some cases redevelopment. BillionGraves officials said digital photos, transcribed by volunteers, preserve that information. The company makes it searchable for free, which helps visitors locate headstones, especially in unmapped or remote cemeteries.

“On numerous occasions, people were looking for their ancestors’ names and were actually brought to tears when they see pictures of where their great-grandfather, for example, is buried,” said Tom Comstock, BillionGraves CEO. “Then they can be guided within feet to the actual grave. There’s an emotional connection. You know where their final resting place is.”

BillionGraves began three years ago and is a commercial company headquartered in Kaysville, Utah. Its income thus far is mainly from ads, officials said, but it also has fee-based features. Its staff are Mormon, but they stress it is not a Mormon company and welcomes diverse users united in enthusiasm for family history research.

Center stage

Keys to this effort are young people and their affinity for modern technology. In the LDS pilot project, participants such as Boyer have taken center stage, visiting cemeteries with smartphones as community service projects.

“We realize that the greatest love of our youth seem to be their phones,” Comstock said. “Now, to get them to serve others in a project like this is monumental. Time and time again, they say how much they enjoy this project. In days gone by, we’ve told them to turn their smartphones off during our activities. Now, here’s an example where we want them to keep their smart phones on and do something good for somebody else.”

Mormons’ focus on ancestral research is rooted in their belief that families may live together for eternity. Consequently, they practice baptisms on non-Mormon relatives after their death, believing it gives them an opportunity for salvation.

Boyer, himself, discovered possible ancestors in his daylong cataloging at Fort Sam.

With an estimated average of 18 burials a day there, he said, he’ll continue using the app long after achieving Eagle Scout status.

“I’m not looking at the numbers but what the project is all about,” he said. “It’s for these people who served our nation. I saw people who served in World War I, World War II and Korea. That’s pretty much all their lives. ... We have the technology today to do this a lot faster than ever.”

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