The FindAGrave website has been around since 1995, but it is no longer owned by the original founder. As the new owner didn’t rename or rebrand the website, it’s not obvious that it changed hands.
So who owns FindAGrave now? The answer is Ancestry.com, the genealogical giant.
Ancestry purchased FindAGrave from founder James Tipton in 2013. Ancestry continues to operate FindAGrave.com as a free ad-supported website for burial and memorial information worldwide.
Who Owned FindAGrave Before Ancestry Bought It?
The website was started as a hobby by James Tipton in 1995. Tipton liked to visit the burial sites of famous people, and he set up the website to record and find more celebrity graves. Initially, interested people sent suggestions of places for him to visit. They would also post photographs of headstones (yes, by snail-mail), and Tipton would upload them to the website.
The website really took off when Tipton opened it to user-submitted content as a membership site. You can still see Tipton’s entry as member #1 on the site.
As the website grew in popularity, Tipton incorporated FindAGrave as a company in 2000. In that year, he dropped the limitation on fame and opened up the locations to all graves.
Why did Jim Tipton Sell FindAGrave to Ancestry?
Basically, the website outgrew him. Although most of the content was being uploaded and maintained by volunteers, Tipton was running the administration and infrastructure of a massive website.
He said at the time that it had gotten too big to run it himself. But Tipton wanted to retain some control, so he joined Ancestry in 2013 as part of the acquisition.
Why Did Ancestry Buy FindAGrave?
Ancestry has a history of growing through making acquisitions of other online genealogy sites. The year before Ancestry bought FindAGrave, it also acquired:
- a photo service called 1000Memories
- a DNA testing service called GeneTree
- an online newspaper repository called Archives.com
The photo service was shut down a year after purchase. GeneTree’s DNA databases were shut down in 2015. At least Archives.com is still around. But you can understand why FindAGrave members were a little worried!
Unlike FindAGrave, the main Ancestry operation is a subscription-based website. FindAGrave was already monetized through displaying ads on the website, but the membership was free. What was the attraction for Ancestry? I think it was two-fold.
More Paid Subscriptions
If a percentage of FindAGrave members could be converted to pay for an Ancestry subscription, the bottom line would be boosted. But that would be difficult to predict. And what was easy to predict was a degree of discomfort and backlash from loyal users. I’ll come to that later.
More Users – Free or Otherwise
A more persuasive reason can be found in statistics of web visitors to genealogy sites. The Genealogy In Time Magazine had a good article back in 2013 on this topic. They used web traffic measures from Alexa, which may not be exactly accurate – but I just want to focus here on the relative rankings.
In 2012 and 2013, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com were consistently in first and second place in terms of web traffic. FamilySearch.org was number three in 2012, with FindAGrave.com one place behind. But in 2013, FindAGrave was still growing and would overtake FamilySearch to climb into third position.
How does a giant get more gigantic? Buy up the competition.
How Did FindAGrave Members React To Ancestry’s Purchase?
FindAGrave itself has an active forum, and some members were also vocal on Facebook and other social media. I took a wander down memory lane and browsed through forum posts and blog comments from that year. What was the verdict? Mixed, it’s fair to say. There are some comments that I couldn’t possibly repeat in polite company!
Some welcomed the economic power and resources that Ancestry could bring to the table. The FindAGrave infrastructure was creaking a little, and a bit of money might speed up searches.
Some volunteers who had uploaded hundreds if not thousands of photos were worried about what would happen to their work. Some were downright miffed not to have gained in some small way from a buyout that piggy-backed on their efforts. Of course, they were always entitled to delete their uploads. Some did just that – for many different reasons.
I think that the most common worry was that Ancestry would either pull FindAGrave in behind its own paywall, or turn the website into a stand-alone subscription-based service.
That was 2013, and this is now. FindAGrave.com is still a free ad-supported website.
Will Ancestry Keep FindAGrave Free?
The question crops up with major changes to Ancestry’s ownership. The most recent change was Ancestry’s acquisition by a private equity giant, Blackstone.
I don’t see any signs that Ancestry intends to change FindAGrave’s free membership to a paid tier.
However, recently, Ancestry itself was purchased by Blackstone, the private equity group. Our article on Ancestry’s ownership goes into the history and current details.
Will Ancestry Continue To Grow FindAGrave?
Will Ancestry keep showing FindAGrave some love? That’s something to keep an eye on. Remember RootsWeb? No? Pull up a chair.
RootsWeb was/is an online genealogy forum that allowed members to upload and search family trees. Ancestry acquired RootsWeb in 2000. “Benign neglect” is how one could politely describe Ancestry’s subsequent attitude toward their purchase. Other commentators have been more blunt.
In 2020, a message appeared on the front page of RootsWeb. This is an excerpt:
Beginning March 2nd, 2020 the Mailing Lists functionality on RootsWeb will be discontinued…As an alternative to RootsWeb Mailing Lists, Ancestry message boards are a great option to network with others in the genealogy community. Message boards are available for free with an Ancestry registered account.RootsWeb
I’ve written a separate article about RootsWeb if you’re interested. What about FindAGrave? Will Ancestry just keep it ticking over, or will they continue to invest in the site?
Well, Ancestry pretty much left the FindAGrave website untouched for a few years. Then things changed…
But before we look at changes to the website, it’s worth looking at a new piece of software that Ancestry provided to FindAGrave enthusiasts.
Ancestry Rolls Out the FindAGrave Mobile App
Ancestry launched the FindAGrave Mobile App in 2014 for the iPhone. The Android version soon followed.
The app isn’t simply a mobile interface to the website. More significantly, you can mark the GPS location of specific graves. And find graves that others have marked using your phone’s GPS.
Doesn’t BillionGraves Do GPS?
BillionGraves.com is a competitor to FindAGrave, and also has a mobile app. The thing about BillionGraves is that every grave record must have both a photograph and a GPS location. Neither is mandatory with FindAGrave.
But FindAGrave has far more graves than BillionGraves (whose name is presumably aspirational). My advice? Use both services when you’re grave-hunting.
Ancestry Overhauls FindAGrave (Under the Hood)
At the RootsTech Conference of 2017, a senior Ancestry manager laid out the reasons why they were making big changes to the software underlying the FindAGrave website. The (alas discontinued) Ancestry Insider blog had a good account of the event.
The Ancestry staffer, Peter Drinkwater, cited these concerns:
- The aging code was less secure than modern software alternatives
- Modern web frameworks are more responsive to tablets and cell phones
- An overhaul would make the site multilingual
At first, Ancestry ran both the old and new versions of FindAGrave side by side as they ironed out some teething problems. The temporary beta was at gravestage.com, but that is now gone.
Later that year, they turned off the old website and switched the domain to the new version.
It’s fair to say that this overhaul took considerable effort and resources from Ancestry. That’s a good sign that the company views FindAGrave as a core part of its operation. Or does it? I was a little puzzled when I stumbled across another Ancestry website: WeRemember. Never heard of it? Neither had I until I was writing an article on Ancestry Mobile Apps. Pull up a chair.
Why Does Ancestry Have Two Free Memorial Websites?
By the way, I don’t know the answer to this question. If you do, please drop a comment below.
In 2017, Ancestry partnered with the National Guardian Life Insurance Company to set up the WeRemember.com website. This is an online service where you create a free memorial page for your loved one. You add photos and stories, and there’s a guestbook for people to drop by and sign.
I understand that this site is squarely aimed towards celebrating the recently deceased. But don’t people do this on FindAGrave too?
I’m not based in the United States so I may not be seeing relevant advertisements. But I get the impression that Ancestry isn’t pushing WeRemember very hard. It’s certainly not in my face when I log into my Ancestry account. So, I don’t think they’re viewing it as a FindAGrave replacement!
Another point of contrast is that this WeRemember site doesn’t turn up in my Ancestry tree hints. FindAGrave certainly does…
How Does Ancestry Integrate with FindAGrave?
Records added to FindAGrave will get indexed into Ancestry’s archives. This makes them available through searching on the Ancestry website. They are also served up as hints in your family tree. (Overwhelmed by hints? Check out our articles on dealing with hints effectively).
The worry in 2013 was that Ancestry would integrate these records, and then get rid of the FindAGrave website. But you can search the same record base from either website.
There is a time lag between making changes or additions on FindAGrave, and seeing the records on Ancestry. If you can’t find a FindAGrave reference within Ancestry, then you should go and search the dedicated website.
FindAGrave Records in Ancestry Indexes
In technical terms, the new records need to be “indexed” into Ancestry’s searchable database. You can keep an eye on when a collection is indexed by using the Ancestry Card Catalog.
Strangely enough, I threw “FindAGrave” and “Find A Grave” into the keyword search on the Card Catalog page…and got nada. So I resorted to an internet search, which gave me a link to all the FindAGrave collections. Here you are (you’re welcome).
Scroll down to the end of the page to see the individual collections.
Click on an individual collection to open its catalog page. Once again, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You will see a history of the most recent additions to the index.
Verify Everything When Using FindAGrave for Genealogy Research
FindAGrave was not created for genealogy research. Yet Ancestry is now including the site as a source of records for researching your family tree. It’s important to remember that FindAGrave documents are uploaded without moderation or review. The information may simply be inaccurate.
Having said that, FindAGrave can be an invaluable launching point for your research. You’ve just got to verify everything.
There’s a lengthy section in our article on using FindAGrave when researching your DNA matches and your family tree. You’ll find some tips and tricks on gleaning gold nuggets from obituaries.
Calls for Ancestry to Improve How FindAGrave Deals With Recent Deaths
I’ve already referenced our article that covers finding obituaries on FindAGrave. That section also touches upon concerns about a practice by which FindAGrave enthusiasts rush to post obituaries of the very recently deceased. This has led to considerable distress for the bereaved.
Amy Johnson Crow has written strongly about this. Michael John Neill is one of several other genealogy bloggers who have also detailed their objections. And readers have added their own experiences to the comments section. This is not a small problem.
Several people have pointed out that Ancestry could add a brief delay of a few months, based on the death date associated with the submitted records. Sure, the system could be gamed by entering inaccurate dates. But I’m pretty sure that most hobbyists would stop and think, and want to avoid causing upset.
I support calls for Ancestry to address this issue.