Sometimes a cemetery’s records are complex, non-standard, or just plain difficult to read. Other complications could arise, such as ownership changing hands; a decedent being disinterred; or the property being sold back to the cemetery, making it available for resale. With records like this, deeper interpretation than what OCR is currently capable of is needed, and that can only be accomplished with civilization’s oldest scanner: the human eye. By having people go through a cemetery’s records manually, there is a higher likelihood that existing errors will be caught and not brought into the database. Further, a standard template for how records will be entered and viewed can be established, and any deviations can be properly categorized for accuracy and ease of access. There are many cases where careful analysis and entry of records in this manner has resulted in a cemetery discovering unsold inventory or double sold property, either making or saving the cemetery more than it cost to convert the records into digital format.
This manual process can be as hands-on or hands-off for the staff as a cemetery manager would like. If a cemetery has the time, it can all be done in-house. In this case, the manager could examine the data, establish a set of rules for interpreting what’s on the documents so that the data on the other end is uniformly searchable, and then dedicate personnel to the task. If you are fortunate enough to have access to interns, volunteers, or history buffs, this is a wonderful project for them. As records are discovered that do not comply with the rules, these can be flagged for review by the manager to leverage their knowledge while protecting their time from the bulk of the entry work. Due to the level of analysis required, Quality Control measures should be defined and implemented to ensure that these rules are being followed properly. This can be as simple as having a second set of eyes on each record at the start of the process. Taking these measures holds staff accountable and allows for course correction early on, if needed.
Depending on the size of the cemetery, the manual data entry process could take months or longer, but it is doable. A cemetery could also outsource the work to a third party by transferring key knowledge of the records to a project manager and staff who, with a set of analysis rules and quality control guidelines, can take care of the majority of the entry work. This allows cemetery staff to remain focused on day-to-day operations while leveraging their knowledge of difficult records.
Regardless of who enters the information from the paper records, it is critical to establish a baseline against which all records will be entered. Typically, this is best done by starting with a data set of all property inventory, established off of the maps, and reconciling any subsequent records (owners, burials, etc.) against that inventory. This method forces the paper records to reconcile with the maps, and it also works out discrepancies that almost always emerge in a paper record system over time.
As you can see, this is an involved process, but it has a greater chance of ensuring accuracy and creating an easily searchable database than OCR can on its own. Streamlining business processes and increasing office efficiency, however, is simply the beginning. From this point, you are able to offer families an elevated service experience, such as building sales contracts with the click of a button, tracking and visualizing the history of client interactions automatically when creating working orders, reserving property, or other important tasks.
Each cemetery and each record set has its own set of challenges and priorities. When assessing what steps your cemetery should take in order to bring your historic records into the digital realm, consider first how you intend to use the data and what will set you up for achieving your long term goals. Do you simply need a remote way of accessing your paper records? OCR may provide a viable and affordable path. As your cemetery seeks to grow in its ability to provide remote services, facilitate interactive customer experience, or utilize the data to reach your customer base, a more robust solution may be found through data entry.
This article was first published in the Catholic Cemetery Magazine in January 2021.