Victoria Askin photographs a headstone in the Kenai Cemetery as part of a city imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023 in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Victoria Askin photographs a headstone in the Kenai Cemetery as part of a city imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023 in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Volunteers help build visual database of Kenai cemetery plots

The cataloging will allow someone to check on the condition or maintenance of a specific grave

A small team of volunteers moved meticulously throughout the Kenai Municipal Cemetery on Friday, bracing themselves against blustery wind and carefully capturing images of graves — from traditional headstones to wooden crosses — as part of a new digital archiving project being conducted by the City of Kenai.

Victoria Askin, who sits on the Kenai City Council, was one of Friday’s volunteers. Armed with an iPad, she and Kenai Historical Society President June Harris moved from grave to grave, studying the names of those buried below before photographing and uploading pictures of the graves to the city’s new virtual database.

“Do you want me to try and get a picture really close and see if we can decipher it?” Askin asked Harris.

Askin said her family is into genealogy — she can trace her own family tree back to the Bolshevik Revolution — and said people similarly interested in their family history like being able to see the gravesites of their ancestors.

“People that are into genealogy like to go to the gravesites and find their relatives,” Askin said. “They can see we’ve got pictures of it.”

Harris agreed, saying she likes the idea of people who aren’t in Alaska being able to find their relatives through an online database.

“I think it’s really neat,” Harris said. “This cemetery is old.”

The Kenai City Cemetery is so old, in fact, that it’s been around longer than it’s been owned by the City of Kenai, which assumed control of the site in the 1980s.

Kenai City Clerk Shellie Saner said there are about 20 years between when the cemetery saw its first burial and when it came under the umbrella of the city, which has caused some gaps in the city’s data. There are almost 80 graves, for example, marked as “unknown,” in which the city doesn’t know the identity of the occupant. For those sites, Saner said the city is asking for the public’s help.

“One of the things we want to do is reach out to the community,” Saner said. “If you want to look at this map and you know your loved one’s here, get in contact with us. Let’s see if we can figure out where they’re at.”

Between 2017 and 2022, the City of Kenai had a moratorium on the sale of cemetery plots to people who were still alive due to a lack of space. Kenai City Council members last summer voted to resume plot sales following the completion of the city’s cemetery expansion project, adding space for 64 new adult and 12 new infant plots on the property immediately north of the existing space.

Council members at the same time updated the sections of city code that dictate rules and regulations at the cemetery, such as what can be left at gravesites and what times of the year artificial flowers can be placed at plots. Saner said Friday that, among those changes, was a new rule that grave markers must be permanent fixtures, rather than ones that could be blown away or rot.

As volunteers moved throughout the cemetery Friday, they sometimes struggled to find the names of people whose graves were marked with such things like a wooden cross, which sometimes had decayed or fallen apart completely. Some municipal cemeteries, Saner said, have switched to making crosses out of PVC to ensure durability of the marker. The city cannot upgrade any existing markers, she said.

Volunteers weren’t completely working in the dark on Friday, though. They carried iPads that showed the city’s newly launched interactive cemetery map, with which they could orient themselves, try to match names and add photos to the correct plot box.

“I think everyone’s doing pretty good,” said Gary Greenberg.

He’s the owner of Alaska Map Company and helped launch Kenai’s interactive digital cemetery map. Greenberg also assisted the cities of Seward and Soldotna with their digital cemetery maps, and was helping Friday’s volunteers navigate the software.

On the screen of volunteers’ iPads was a grid of the cemetery plots, with each plot colored red or green. Once a picture of the corresponding headstone or grave marker was attached to a specific plot, that plot would turn from red to green, conveying that the photos had been successfully uploaded.

Greenberg estimated that it takes one minute to upload pictures of each grave, and said he hopes to have the whole cemetery logged in two days. Greenberg said the benefits of Friday’s cataloging will be the ability of someone to check on the condition or maintenance of a specific grave as well as the ability to check the accuracy of the city’s existing data.

“Before the city owned it, it wasn’t really well-regulated, so it was difficult to see where people were buried,” Greenberg said. “This is a good effort to help double check that. It’s good to have efforts to make sure that everybody’s counted.”

The Kenai Municipal Cemetery is located at the intersection of First Avenue and Coral Street.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

Victoria Askin (left) and Kenai Historical Society President June Harris (right) inspect an interactive map of the Kenai Cemetery as part of a city imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Victoria Askin (left) and Kenai Historical Society President June Harris (right) inspect an interactive map of the Kenai Cemetery as part of a city imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Victoria Askin (left) and Kenai Historical Society President June Harris (right) photograph headstones as part of the City of Kenai’s cemetery imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Victoria Askin (left) and Kenai Historical Society President June Harris (right) photograph headstones as part of the City of Kenai’s cemetery imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Historical Society President June Harris (left) and Victoria Askin (right) photograph headstones as part of the City of Kenai’s cemetery imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023 in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Historical Society President June Harris (left) and Victoria Askin (right) photograph headstones as part of the City of Kenai’s cemetery imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023 in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Victoria Askin rights a cross at the headstone of Nels C. Juliussen in the Kenai Cemetery as part of a city imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Victoria Askin rights a cross at the headstone of Nels C. Juliussen in the Kenai Cemetery as part of a city imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Victoria Askin photographs a headstone in the Kenai Cemetery as part of a city imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Victoria Askin photographs a headstone in the Kenai Cemetery as part of a city imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Historical Society President June Harris inspects a grave marker as part of the City of Kenai’s cemetery imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Historical Society President June Harris inspects a grave marker as part of the City of Kenai’s cemetery imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Historical Society President June Harris (left) and Victoria Askin (right) photograph headstones as part of the City of Kenai’s cemetery imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Historical Society President June Harris (left) and Victoria Askin (right) photograph headstones as part of the City of Kenai’s cemetery imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Victoria Askin photographs a headstone in the Kenai Cemetery as part of a city imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Victoria Askin photographs a headstone in the Kenai Cemetery as part of a city imaging project on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

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