Genealogy Insider: The Hidden Lives of Graveyard Rabbits

Genealogy Insider: The Hidden Lives of Graveyard Rabbits

An online genealogical organization celebrates cemeteries.

If you spend a lot of time visiting, photographing and writing about cemeteries, some people might think your fascination a bit morbid. Genealogists, however, wouldn’t bat an eyelash. Especially not those who belong to a group called the Association of Graveyard Rabbits. 
In October 2008, a blogger who goes by the handle footnoteMaven invited Mississippi genealogist Terry Thornton to write about cemeteries, grave markers and burial customs for her Shades of the Departed e-zine. Thornton thought of the Frank L. Stanton poem “The Graveyard Rabbit,” about “a tiny ghost in the gloom and gleam/content to live where dead men dream.” The words aptly describe not only the tiny ghost, but also the work of genealogists and historians: They seek to make a connection between the living and the dead.
The column had a title. “Reception was very positive,” footnoteMaven remarks. “It resonated with so many historians and genealogists.”
So much so that Thornton suggested an online Association of Graveyard Rabbits—”GYRabbit” for short. The group was “born of a common interest and a love of old cemeteries and their research,” footnoteMaven says.
The “rabbits” may ruminate on cemeteries and the dead, but their goal is to bring these topics out of the gloom and gleam. They created a website and invited other cemetery enthusiasts to join. The members came, creating a thriving community dedicated to the academic study of cemeteries and grave markers, as well as the family history to be discovered in burial customs.
Members also work toward social promotion of graveyards—helping the doubting public understand that there’s more than just ghosts and sorrow in the local burial ground—the preservation of cemeteries, and the transcription of historical and genealogical information found there.
Becoming a rabbit is simple: Members must keep a blog devoted to the goals of the association, displaying the GYRabbit logo and explaining the membership. Posts should include information on specific burial grounds and graveyards. GYRabbits already can be found in countries around the world, though the focus isn’t on numbers—no one’s sure exactly how many rabbits there are.
Once you’re a rabbit, the most important resource the GYRabbits offer is fellow members. “We do have a group of people who share the same fascination with cemeteries and funeral customs, and who share their expertise through their blogs,” notes Denise Olson, the Tech Guru of the GYRabbits. “Reading their work provides both information and inspiration. And as a group we offer a broad range of knowledge.” 
If a member has a question, others are quick to help. “If you need something done in another part of the country, just find a rabbit nearby,” says Diane Wright, editor of an e-mail newsletter sent to all members. “They’ll be glad to go to a cemetery for you to take a picture or research an ancestor.” 
The newsletter, The Graveyard Rabbit Travels Wright, is published online. “The goal is to share with the other rabbits what’s going on in the world of graveyards,” Wright explains. 
Like many more-traditional genealogy and history associations, GYRabbits publishes a journal with columns such as the The History Hare by footnoteMaven and “Tech T.I.P.” (a play on the classic “RIP” epitaph) by Olsen.
The Association also sponsors a graveyard-themed blog carnival. “The carnival is a themed writing event designed to bring together articles by our members on a given subject,” footnoteMaven says. Participants post related photos, stories and research to their GYRabbit blogs. You can follow past carnivals—with themes such as veterans memorials, forgotten cemeteries, and “The Interesting, The Odd, The Beautiful”—online
Facebook plays a big role in the meetings of this primarily online group. Hen Van Kampen, the graveyard rabbit of Utrecht and Het Gooi, Netherlands, administers the page.
Members reach out in the non-virtual world, too, by speaking to local genealogical societies. But the rabbits plan to keep most of their activities online—including building a library of web articles and links to make cemetery research easier. “Discussions are ongoing for a Cemetery of the Year award,” footnoteMaven adds. 
Clearly, these rabbits don’t mind the gloom and gleam of a graveyard—or the “morbid” tag others might apply—but they aren’t content to stay there. In their efforts to celebrate cemeteries, says footnoteMaven, “We rabbits are incorrigible.”
Cemetery Studies
Find tombstones fascinating? Further your graveyard research with these resources:

The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds by Marilyn Yalom and Reid Samuel Yalom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
• Cemeteries and Cemetery Symbols


• Daily Tombstone Photo


• Graves, Tombs and Cemeteries Flickr group


Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister (Gibbs Smith)
• Tombstone Art and Symbols


From the May 2010 Family Tree Magazine

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