If you’ve ever wandered around a cemetery, you could probably appreciate the importance of keeping track of who owns which plots and who is buried where. In many small towns, cemeteries end up being managed by the local Parks and Recreation departments. A few years ago, one of these departments asked me to build a geographic information system (GIS) for their cemetery. The person who had managed their cemetery was retiring after decades on the job, and they wanted to make it easier for someone else to manage.
Pro tip: Teach your client the basic concepts of your field. My experience has demonstrated “teaching them how to fish” doesn’t result in you losing clients. It empowers them, and helps fuel new projects that you can help them with. I wish I could say that building a cemetery GIS was my idea. It wasn’t. But it was a really fun project, nonetheless, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.
GIS & Data Modeling 101
A geographic information system is a way of storing information about the real world using a
collection of graphics and an associated record in a table (think Excel spreadsheet) associated with each graphic. Each collection represents a component in the system. For a cemetery, we really only have one component: grave plots. In a GIS, we represent this type of a component as polygons – polygons that happen to be rectangular in shape.
A data model is essentially a design for the tables associated with your component. What attributes do we want to associate with our component? Or, what column headers do you want in the table(s)? Below is diagram representing the barebones of a GIS for a cemetery.
My client didn’t wake up one day and decide they wanted to start tracking who owned which plots and who was buried where. They had a system in place – a system that consisted of a single Excel file. This file was packed full of so much information that only its creator could decipher its contents. I’ve since taken on the creation of multiple cemetery GIS projects for small towns – and they are similar managed – in an Excel spreadsheet.
Regardless, this approach to managing your assets works perfectly fine. It only becomes an issue if the system isn’t self-contained and requires knowledge that only its creator has.
What if that person gets sick or wants to retire? Transitioning to something like a GIS helps ensure the institutional knowledge of your organization, making you much more sustainable.
Data Model Design
The process of reviewing an existing information management system and transition to a GIS is extremely unique to the organization and people involved. However, after running through the process for a few cemeteries, I’ve come across a few similarities in the way the data models end up looking. Below is a data model that I’ve come up with for a small town cemetery.
So once the data model is designed, then what? These data models are used to build the tables in a geographic information system. That GIS is then populated with the datasets that are cultivated through the process of reviewing and organizing the client’s existing information system. Once built, the GIS can be put into the hands of the people who need the information via static PDF maps or dynamic map-based applications.
Below is a screen shot of a web application used internally by the Town of Snowflake in Arizona for managing their cemetery. Plots are color coded based on their status (available, reserved, occupied, unavailable), and its users can get additional information by clicking on a plot, or by pulling up the table and searching for anything from a plot ID number to a deceased’s name. Once a record is selected in the table, it is highlighted on the map so that the user can easily transition between table and map.
Curious to see this in action? Check out the Town of Taylor’s public facing cemetery site, where you can browse and/or lookup loved ones.