MARION, Ill. (AP) — In the city of Marion's quest to be user friendly it has wholeheartedly embraced the idea of becoming a digital city. The web-accessible, GIS mapping system in place at the city's cemetery is just one way they have succeeded, officials say.

A digital city is a community digital space, in Marion's case a website, which is used to expedite and enhance the activities and functions taking place within the physical space of the city.

The project was the brainchild of the Marion City Commissioner John Goss and IT Director Terence Henry, who in 2013 perceived the need for a user-friendly system of navigating the sprawling cemetery that includes Rose Hill, Maplewood and Oddfellows burial grounds and over 35,000 grave sites.

"The inspiration truly came from an experience I had trying to find my grandmother's headstone in a city cemetery in Alton. I remembered that it was the last in its row, by a tree, but when I got there, there were lots or rows and lots of trees," Henry said.

Goss said that additional concerns that spurred the project were a spate of vandalism suffered by the cemetery some years back.

"At the time, there were incidences of stones being moved or stolen, which led to confusion about where some grave sites were located. With this project, we have taken the guess work out of returning those stones to their proper locations," Goss said.

To do this, Goss and Henry tasked St. Louis based Horner & Shifrin to develop web-based GIS and mobile mapping system to locate and reconcile data pertaining to existing burial sites. Their efforts netted them a 2015 ACEC Illinois Engineering Excellence Award.

Henry said that in addition to marking the GIS location of each burial site, the mapping system also contains information such as date of birth and burial type, which makes the job of genealogists and historians a lot easier.

Additionally, Goss said, it solves the problem of staffing, because the technological interface means the "office is never closed," even when most other things are.

People looking to locate the resting place of a loved one can do so from their desktop, or by downloading the City's Apple- and Android-friendly app.

Navigation in either platform will bring the user, with a few interactions, to the location of the burial site, accurate to within 3 inches of the exact location.

"One of the reasons we have such great accuracy is that we have a guy whose full-time job is to walk the cemetery and do the GIS marking. We have a dedicated staff and those people take great pride in what they do," Goss said.

In addition, the city has upgraded signs and markers within the cemetery to make physical navigation easier.

Henry said the program is far from complete and in the future the city intends to have a fully interactive GPS program that includes driving and walking directions within the cemetery and show the distance from the user to any burial site.

"Eventually, not only will someone will be able locate a burial site, but they will be able to see a picture of the head stone, and in time, information about each individual. We will likely start that portion of this project with some of the historical people, senators and generals, that have been buried there," Henry said.

Goss said that because this project is staffed in house, the city was able to accomplish the initial phases of this project for a little over $10,000.

Henry said GIS mapping the cemetery also protects the data about who is buried and where from loss or mix-ups. Because the information is backed up on three separate systems it is now secure in the face of the retirement or migration of city employees.

Goss and Henry stressed that they understand how hard it is to lose a loved one, and after their internment, walk away and leave them behind.

"But with these devices and our computers and everything else, your loved one is right there. You can pull our website or app up at any time, from anywhere, and check on them," Henry said.

Efforts to upgrade interaction with the cemetery are ongoing. The Goddard Chapel, which is on the National of Historic Places and offered free to the public for the celebration of final rites, is in the process of being upgraded.

"We will continue to maintain the cemetery and the chapel to the highest standards and with the best use of public money. But those projects are expensive, so we have decided that in the near future we will be offering memorial pews in the church for $1,000 to help fundraise for that effort," Goss said.


Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan,


Information from: Southern Illinoisan,