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The National Cemetery Administration Records Verification Project

By Steve Paul Johnson, August 1, 2000

The National Cemetery Administration (NCA), a division of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, has been undertaking an extensive project to verify the burial records in their database. This is a painstaking process of comparing the records in their database with original records of interment.  The NCA operates 119 cemeteries in 39 states and territories, including an additional 33 soldiers' lots in private cemeteries, all containing over 2.3 million remains of veterans and their families.

In 1993, the NCA installed a new computerized system of managing interment records.  Up until then, records were recorded on ROI forms (Record of Interment), which were later microfilmed.  In order to perform a lookup, NCA staff had to browse through microfilms.  Looking up records was particularly difficult, as all microfilmed records were organized by year of interment, and then alphabetized from there.  Finding a record meant first having to know the interment year, a piece of information which many people did not have. The computer system would allow the NCA to lookup records faster using less information.

All NCA cemeteries began using the new system in 1993 for all new burials moving forward.  Adding the prior records to the new system would prove to be a daunting task.  To do this, the NCA hired a contractor who digitized each microfilmed ROI form into an image.  From there, optical character recognition (OCR) was used to “read” imaged text and then transformed into computer data.  All computer data was stored into a special database that the NCA refers to as “the priors”.

The NCA estimates the imaging and OCR process to have yielded an 80% accuracy rate.  Some ROI forms were handwritten and required manual transcription.  On some forms, the OCR failed due to the type being too faint to read, or the type not being centered in the boxes.  Additionally, the ROI forms changed shape and style many times over the years causing even more transformation problems.  Some veterans' remains were disinterred and moved to private cemeteries by their families.  Obviously, the NCA could not remove these records from microfilm, yet they were still imaged, read, and stored into the priors.  Before any of the data from the priors can be added to the new system, each record must be manually verified as being accurate and current. Hence, the verification project.

The NCA placed the priors on a computer system that can be accessed by each of the national cemeteries.  Each cemetery has been asked to verify these records.  A cemetery staff will get a record from the priors, and compare it with a record that the cemetery itself had maintained locally.  In some cases, the staff will actually visit the gravesites to verify that someone is there, and will even use information from the tombstones.  Some cemeteries have been very active in verifying records, while others have not even started.  The NCA currently allocates funds to the cemeteries to pay for overtime and to hire outside workers.  The NCA predicts that they will have to hire a contractor to get the verification project completed in a more timely fashion.  About 10,000 to 15,000 records are verified each month, and about 30% to 35% of the priors have been verified.

In some cases, the cemeteries are finding that they have interment records that the NCA does not have.  Somehow, the original ROI form was misplaced, or destroyed, and was never microfilmed.  In this case, the cemeteries are adding their own records to the new computer system.

Cemeteries outside of the NCA have been making use of the new computer system as well.  The Army has begun using it for cemeteries they administer, including Arlington National Cemetery.  Some state veterans’ cemeteries have started using it also.  Records of all new burials are being added to those of the NCA, though records previous to the new computer system have yet to be converted over.

Some websites have obtained copies of the verified and unverified records and are publishing them online.  Interment.net is currently incorporating them, and has marked all unverified records with an asterisk (*).  The NCA was asked if they would encourage the public to come forward to provide verification.  However, the NCA indicated that many of these burials occurred over a hundred years ago, and in no way could someone today vouch for such a burial, especially without having copies of original records.

Other websites have published these records also, but have failed to indicate which records are unverified. As a result, some users have been shocked with the results.  In one case, the mother of a deceased child visited one such website and found her child listed in the wrong cemetery.  She thought that the NCA moved her child to a different cemetery without her notification!  The NCA had to explain that she found an unverified record and that the website had failed to explain this. 

As to when the NCA will complete the project, they could not estimate.  A decision still has to be made whether or not to hire a contractor to expedite the verification.  Each cemetery has been allotted funds to conduct the verification, but it is not known how they are using the money.  Once the verification is completed, the NCA plans to provide a database search utility on its website.

- Steve Paul Johnson

Steve is the editor of The Cemetery Column and Webmaster of Cemetery Records Online.

Source: United States Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration

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