Memorialization, mapping, work orders... there's an App for that!
If you visit West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, don't waste time looking at paper maps in order to find someone buried there. Instead, pull out your smart phone and get directions to navigate directly to the grave. You can do this because West Laurel Hill is the first cemetery to go mobile on a smartphone or tablet device.
"Following our tradition of embracing new trends and technology, West Laurel Hill is helping to revolutionize the way families memorialize and rediscover their heritage with the development of an award winning app for cemeteries," says Alexander L. "Pete" Hoskins, President & CEO.
West Laurel Hill's creative directive combined with the work of the webCemeteries.com staff who programmed the app has created what has been recognized as groundbreaking technology for the cemetery industry. The app has been recognized by the ICCFA as the most personalized industry product of 2011 with the KIP Award, and many cemeteries across the country have begun implementing the app, including West Laurel Hill's sister cemetery, Laurel Hill, Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, PA, and Gethsemane Cemetery in Reading, PA.
The app is fundamentally transforming the way that these cemeteries locate graves, serve their families, memorialize the deceased, provide walking tours, create work orders, index and map trees, access documents from the field and more.
Digital Memorials: Creating Experiences
At the grave-site, the app delivers a truly timeless digital memorial to the deceased. "Families can create a digital memorial with their loved one's life story, pictures and videos," says Eric Robuck, President of webCemeteries.com, the company that programmed the app. "This memorial is electronically linked to the longitude and latitude of the grave and can be viewed from a mobile device. The life will be remembered and the grave can be found even in the absence of a physical headstone or paper map."
These new digital memorials stand in stark contrast to any memorialization option available in the past. Prior to this app, cemetery memorialization consisted of a physical marker with an inscription and perhaps a photo, or at best an optional barcode that could be scanned to retrieve a memorial page. These forms of physical memorialization are all susceptible to physical deterioration and the threats of age. By contrast, the mobile app relies on the site's longitude and latitude — a reference point that will never change. All prior forms of memorialization still required using paper records and maps to navigate to the grave, and no prior method offered digitally enhanced memorialization for every person in the cemetery.
At West Laurel Hill, every single grave, whether or not it has a physical marker, has a digital memorial that can be used to navigate to the physical gravesite, and to view the life story, pictures, videos and memories shared by friends and family. If a message was recorded from the deceased prior to their passing, the video could literally be played from the graveside by every visitor.
Public Use: Is it Popular?
With an ever-increasing percentage of the population, including Baby Boomers, relying on technology for information and assistance, the mobile app allows the cemeteries to bring their services to their community in a way that they universally report is received with surprise and excitement.
Allegheny Cemetery and West Laurel Hill Cemetery see visitors spend hours browsing the cemetery, searching for family members and reading about interesting residents. Hundreds of visitors come to the cemeteries specifically to use their mobile apps.
The cemeteries are finding that the mobile app is a simple and impressive way to let visitors connect with their cemetery, and that mobile technology is relevant to the family. A recent Pew survey found that one out of every three American adults owns a smart phone. In the 50 to 64 year old demographic, nearly one in four owns a smart phone. Not surprisingly, that number is rapidly increasing.
There's an app for that!... and that, and that...
Each cemetery allows the public to use the app in different ways to best serve their families. At West Laurel Hill, visitors can sign a waiver to borrow a tablet device and roam the grounds navigating to burial sites.
Allegheny Cemetery offers tablets to their visitors, but they also offer the app on the Android market. Visitors can download Allegheny's app to their personal phone for free. In the first 30 days, over 140 people downloaded the app to their personal phones and tablets. Because the app accesses the cemetery's records from a "cloud," no cemetery records are actually stored on the user's mobile device, protecting the families' privacy and the cemetery's information.
Walking Tours: Revealing History
Today, rather than relying on their traditional paper pamphlets for walking tours the cemeteries let their visitors use the app to navigate through pre-loaded walking tours of the cemetery. As they are guided through the cemetery they watch videos and read stories along the way.
West Laurel Hill has had a high degree of success providing public tours, including "Congressional Medal of Honor Winners;" "Chocolate, Candy and Cough Drops" highlighting the lives of famous makers of fine confections, including the wife of Milton Hershey; and "Baseball" featuring Harry Wright, father of major league baseball, and many famous major league players at West Laurel Hill.
West Laurel Hill is also planning on creating personalized walking tours for families who have an extensive number of relatives, or multiple generations interred at the cemetery. These tours could be made public, or they could be given or sold only to the immediate family who created the tour. The staff is excited about the prospect of empowering families to showcase their personal history in such a complete and meaningful way.
Legacy Program: Reconnecting with Lot Holders
West Laurel Hill worked with the families of the famous residents in their walking tours to create short videos and stories to be included in the app. They are now offering this video and tribute service to all of their families through a "Legacy" program.
Their counselors have contacted their recent lot holders and offered the opportunity to submit photos and stories, or to come to the cemetery and create a video. This program has been very successful, receiving many submissions from very excited families.
Work Orders: Streamlining the Process
The app is also revolutionizing internal operations at the cemeteries. Rather than being lost in the traditional paperwork for work orders and inspections, staff members are now using mobile devices to take photos of sites requiring maintenance and completing the work order form from the touchscreen. The photo and task is automatically indexed in a work order database back in the office, where it is assigned to a staff person. In the online work order database the work can up updated, archived and securely backed, and also printed for office use.
Office Files: Office in the Field
West Laurel Hill was easily able to scan and index their lot diagrams and other office documents into their database. Now, using the mobile app, they can access these records from the field. This enables sales counselors to identify available property, and enables grounds crew to verify locations and other information without calling or returning to the office.
Green Burials: Mapping Nature
For West Laurel Hill's green burial section, the app is helpful for directing families to graves that are marked by only natural markers. For green cemeteries that do not allow markers, the app offers families a way to relocate their loved one after the service.
Trees: Showcasing and Maintaining the Arboretum
West Laurel Hill cemetery is also a 187 acre arboretum. They are using their application to photograph, map and record the needed maintenance on their trees. As their arborist walks around the cemetery he takes notes directly through the touchscreen and selects condition levels and needed maintenance tasks off of dropdown menus. The app also saves the longitude and latitude of the tree location, and can be used to photograph the tree. The result is a multi-year tree maintenance plan automatically generated and accessible from the office. When the recording is complete, visitors will also be able to use the app to tour the variety of trees that West Laurel Hill has to offer.
Website Integration: Bringing it Home
For most of the 95,000 people interred at West Laurel Hill, the digital memorial simply shows the names and dates recorded on the headstone. To capture and tell the rich history of those interred at the Cemetery, they are inviting the public (not just the lot holders) to visit their website, www.forever-care.com, where visitors can search all of the burial records and submit memories, stories and photos.
When visitors submit information to share on the digital memorials, cemetery staff screens the content before it is published. They also have the opportunity to contact the submitter to verify the information or determine their relationship to the deceased. This community history project has already generated hundreds of submissions and reconnected the cemetery with lot holders and next of kin. The cemeteries are experiencing this to be a very effective outreach to the community.
Mapping: How it all Works
Mapping a cemetery to use the mobile app can be done in several different ways — either by the cemetery staff or through contracted help. The app is integrated with the HMIS web-mapping and the MBS IMAP software so that cemeteries using these mapping systems can easily begin using this new technology. For other cemeteries, there are several additional options.
webCemeteries.com helped West Laurel Hill map their 187 acres by sending a team of people to take pictures of each marker throughout the cemetery. When each picture was taken, the mobile device captured the longitude and latitude of the grave. The pictures and coordinates were then linked into the database of burials — mapping the cemetery right down to the grave level. For unmarked graves, the paper maps were used to approximate the grave location on a satellite image.
The team that mapped West Laurel Hill also noted during the picture taking process which markers needed maintenance and inscriptions. The resulting report is speeding their annual maintenance review, and has provided a list of lot holders than can be called for inscription sales.
webCemeteries.com mapped Gethsemane Cemetery by using their paper maps to approximate the lot locations on Google maps. Gethsemane staff can now fine tune these coordinates using the app as they walk the grounds.
"We anticipate walking the grounds, taking pictures of each of our headstones to serve as a reference. We currently take pictures of each interment prior to opening the grave and have found this to be a valuable source when a question may arise. Having this data stored within our database as well as updating the GPS positioning at the same time makes sense to us," says Timothy Kolasa, Superintendent of Gethsemane.
Mobile devices have changed our culture, and they are now changing our industry. Families can be empowered to interact with cemeteries on a level never before imagined, and cemeteries can find new cultural relevance in modern technology. As Hoskins said, "Even as we are just beginning to scratch the surface of what we can do with this new application, there is a lot of excitement about the groundbreaking opportunities to leap ahead several generations in technology."