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GIS Mapping project underway at Fairmont Cemetery

Monday, 09 November 2009

Officials with the University of Maine at Presque Isle and the Fairmont Cemetery Association are partnering on a unique project that is helping to preserve important information about a local cemetery for future generations.

Drs. Michael Sonntag, Lynn Eldershaw, Kim Sebold and Chunzeng Wang have garnered two MEIF [Maine Economic Improvement Fund] Small Campus Initiative Fund grants - one this year and one last year - totaling $23,000 to complete a project titled "Developing a Cemetery GIS Database for Historic, Cultural, and Social Research in Aroostook County."

The University officials are working with members of the cemetery association to create a GIS database that will allow people to search an inventory of information about the Fairmont Cemetery, including burial data and more than 5,000 photographs of burial plots. The Fairmont Cemetery, established in the 19th century, represents one of the oldest and largest graveyards in northern Maine.

This project serves as the very first mapping of a cemetery in northern Maine and the first large-scale, comprehensive cemetery mapping project using GIS and GPS technology in the state.

GIS [Geographic Information Systems] is an information system that captures, stores, analyzes, and displays geographic information. GPS, which stands for Global Positioning System, is a satellite-based navigation system that can be used to calculate a precise location anywhere in the world.

In late October, UMPI and cemetery association officials marked an important milestone - they held a meeting that signified the end of the first year of the project and the beginning of work on the second year of the project.

During the first year of the project, students Megan Pryor, Sherry Cole, Ashlee Pryor, Robert Baldwin and John Donley worked as research assistants, helping to map and collect cemetery data, including lot and plot numbers, names of the interred, birth dates, death dates, gender, grave headstone/marker material, and mentions of military and civilian service - for more than 2,200 lots and 10,000 plots. Each of these lots and plots has been mapped with GPS/GIS technology.

The second year of work on the project entails entering all of the collected data into a comprehensive and searchable database management system. The information made available by cemetery mapping will serve as a resource for conservation, interment planning, maintenance of grave markers and monuments, and management of facilities, grounds and records. The completed GIS database also will provide important and easily searchable data for researchers in the fields of history, sociology, anthropology, and genealogy. For example, researchers will be able to view burial patterns, such as age and lifespan, gender and religion. Some data patterns may provide clues to historic and social events.

By digitizing the cemetery's current paper and map records, the GIS database will serve another important purpose - it will make the cemetery association's current pen-and-note inventory method of storing information obsolete.

"Cemeteries are invaluable repositories of historical and genealogical information. They provide researchers with demographic information and reflect cultural trends - all of which are issues important to researchers in the fields of history, sociology, anthropology, and genealogy," Dr. Chunzeng Wang, Assistant Professor of Geoscience and GIS, said. "Unfortunately these unique historic records are increasingly subject to vandalism and naturally fall prey to environmental erosion. Cemetery inventories are an important starting point for securing the future of these resources, preserving local history, and providing excellent sources of genealogical information."

This project represents a joint, interdisciplinary, community-based initiative with the University of Maine at Presque Isle, the Fairmont Cemetery Association and the Presque Isle Historical Society.