By Emerald Ware

Normally, when a person thinks about a cemetery, they are either frightened dead bodies or sadly reminded of a passed loved one. On Saturday, September 28th, I visited the Albany Rural Cemetery for a reason other than to grieve and did not experience either of those emotions. Exploring Existence, an event put together by SUNY Albany’s Geography department had piqued my interest in our small city’s Land of the Dead. Together, professors and students in the Geography Department created and released an application that digitalized Albany Rural Cemetery—digital technology allows one to access information on a mobile device, this makes navigating a variety of interests more accessible and easier to manage.

Albany Rural Cemetery is the home to many historic figures. There are 1,030 Civil War soldiers buried there, slaves, abolitionists, and notable politicians such as Philip Schuyler. These graves attract thousands of visitors every year which created a demand for an improved systems of navigation. The digital technology elevates every visitors experience by making it easier to find graves in the expansive cemetery. With the help of the Ben Nadler Grant, these professors and students were able to:

  • research the cemetery’s notable people
  • create complete biographies
  • design a virtual map to guide visitors to the graves.

This project has been innovative, revolutionary, and an explosive step towards the future of cemeteries becoming a place to find stories. By studying a grave and the person who occupies it, one can gain a deeper understanding of how life was lived during a particular time period, and draw comparisons that are still relevant our current time.

In order to access the cemetery, I had to walk down a straight road that led to a Chapel; on this road there were people riding their bikes, homes, and a man mowing his lawn. Considering its close proximity to the cemetery, I was surprised by how casually these people proceeded with their everyday lives. The depiction I’ve seen of cemeteries in the media was exactly the opposite of what I experienced walking into Albany Rural Cemetery. After a surprisingly lively 5 minute walk, I arrived at the Chapel where guests for the event had begun to gather. Everyone was overjoyed to be able to utilize the app for the first time and the presenters were also in good spirits. Getting the application on my phone was as easy as scanning a QR code. I took a picture of it and my phone automatically loaded the app on my internet page. Navigating the application was not a difficult task either. I had to scroll to a widget that said “explore” and a list of people loaded that I could click on to further explore.  After presentations, we followed a virtual map on the app. We were directed up a steep hill which led us to pinned locations. Every highlighted pin was the location of a notable person’s grave.

At first, I didn’t understand the thrill in locating the graves. However, this event informed me of the many politicians, social leaders, and intellects that are buried in this local cemetery and why it is registered as a historical site. The biographies for each person were so plentiful that they subtracted from the sorrow of a life lost normally associated with death. These people had lived!

This experience prompted me to think about what makes a person’s life “notable” and “historically relevant”. I’m so grateful for the experience UAlbany’s Geography department provided me with and the opportunity to explore the beautiful stories behind each slab of gravestone. My perspective of cemeteries has completely shifted and I was introduced to a new technology that is being used, right near where I live, to make sure that people’s stories are not lost or forgotten.