DANVILLE — For Michael Coan, early winter is the best time to go "hunting."
Armed with only a camera, this headstone hunter said he can track small groups of grave markers much easier after the leaves have fallen and weeds have died. And, he prefers cooler temperatures rather than heat and humidity when he's trudging through the countryside looking for small family plots.
In 2006, Coan started a quest to photograph every tombstone in Vermilion County, and for the most part has accomplished his task, except for the occasional old family plot someone will bring to his attention.
He's photographed the stones in more than 120 cemeteries in Vermilion, taking more than 220,000 pictures, and has branched out to cemeteries in other counties, including Champaign, Edgar, Iroquois, Douglas and Ford counties in Illinois and cemeteries in Vermillion and Warren counties in Indiana. Altogether, he's taken more than 400,000 pictures of headstones in the Illiana area.
And he's in the process of posting all those pictures on his website, vermilioncounty.info .
"It's just a hobby," he said.
But preserving historical information that could be lost if a headstone decays or is destroyed is one purpose of his hobby, Coan said. And by posting them online, he's also providing a tool that can help genealogical researchers.
In 2008, he was taking pictures of headstones in the Forest Park Cemetery east of Georgetown. One of the older concrete markers he photographed there has now fallen over, and its face has deteriorated to the point that it's no longer legible. But a picture of the stone in 2008, when it was still legible, can be found on Coan's website, a very good example, he said, of why he has pursued this monumental hobby.
Coan's legwork enables others to take a "virtual" tour of a cemetery from their computers. He said he's received comments from people as far away as California, thanking him that they were able to glean information from pictures of markers on his website.
He has no idea how many miles he's trekked, but he knows he can shoot 1,000 headstones in about 4-5 hours, which means he's probably spent roughly 2,000 hours in the last five years on this project, not including the time it takes to organize and upload the photos to his website. He's taken pictures at more than 40 cemeteries in Champaign County with a total of more than 40,000 headstones photographed and more than 75,000 photos from more than 50 cemeteries in Iroquois County.
For Coan, it's a hobby that developed when he began fulfilling requests from people searching for graves.
He would find the cemetery, the headstone, take a picture and send the information to the requester. From there, he got the idea to shoot all the headstones in a cemetery and post them online. He also posts the GPS coordinates of the cemeteries, so others can find them on their own, particularly the older, smaller more rural cemeteries. He said the coordinates are important, because many of the smaller, older ones are in the middle of wooded, overgrown areas and can be lost.
He's found some that are just a few tombstones, he said. And the biggest cemetery he's photographed so far is Springhill Cemetery in Danville with more than 25,000 pictures that he started taking in 2006 and finished in 2007.
One of the most interesting stones he photographed, he said, was in Floral Hill Cemetery near Hoopeston. It was shaped like a pool table sitting on end. And one of the best epitaphs he's seen was a stone in Springhill Cemetery that states, "God knows who we are."
Coan still doesn't know who they are, he said, but he's determined to find out.
He's also working, he said, on a project with the Illiana Genealogical and Historical Society to update all their cemetery readings and locator books, and believes he can match that information with his photographs to determine who's buried in that grave at Springhill. He said he's also working with the Illinois chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution to locate local graves of veterans of the War of 1812.
To learn more about Coan's headstone project, go to his website at vermilioncounty.info.