Multiple Pittsburgh synagogues are in the process of updating and digitizing cemetery records in order to centralize information about burial plots and facilitate members’ accessibility to those records.
Congregation Beth Shalom, Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation, Shaare Torah Congregation and Temple Sinai are all pursuing some form of modernization initiative for their respective cemeteries, although each is in a different stage of its respective project.
At Beth Shalom, congregation leaders are embarking on a multistep process to verify and digitize cemetery records, which will involve photographing the thousands of headstones at the synagogue’s Shaler Township cemetery and uploading the photos and other information about each plot onto a publicly accessible website.
The company behind the technology, PlotBox, provides digitization software to approximately 80 cemeteries around the country. Cemetery directors — such as Lonnie Wolf of Beth Shalom — upload as much information as needed about each plot onto PlotBox’s website, which then displays it in a user-friendly manner.
“If only I could download my brain into PlotBox,” quipped Wolf.
Sean McAllister, CEO of PlotBox, which employs 34 people in the United Kingdom and United States, said he co-founded the company in 2013 after observing that monitoring cemeteries often constituted what he called a “disjointed” and “fragmented” process. With many cemetery directors continuing to store information in file cabinets, the process was prone to misplacing information or neglecting to update records, he noted.
Robert Menes, executive director of Beth Shalom, echoed those
“We have a lot of information and most of it is stored in paper files,” he said. “They will degrade. They will be hard to understand as time goes on.
“So we need to move them into a system that allows us to access that information and preserve it for years to come.”
McAllister suggested PlotBox’s technology improves the experience for family members of the deceased, as well as synagogue employees overseeing cemetery records.
“Our mission at PlotBox is to help take away some of the pain that’s involved around dealing with death, and that’s mainly from the family standpoint, but also from those who have to serve them,” he said.
Temple Sinai began an “audit” of its cemetery roughly a month ago, which will be followed by an effort to upload the locations of all of the plots onto a database, according to its executive director, Drew Barkley. That will allow congregants to view a map of the cemetery and discern which plots are available for purchase.
“We are actually in the very beginning stages of digitizing, creating a software version of the map by section,” Barkley said.
Sam Schachner, president of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, wrote in an email that the congregation is in the early stages of a modernization effort, but added that the specifics of the project and the exact timeline have yet to be hashed out.
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah said the congregation is in the process of uploading cemetery records onto its website, including locational information.
“We’re in the digital age, and there’s no reason not to,” Wasserman said of why the congregation is embarking on the initiative.
“It’s easier for us and easier for everybody else.”
Synagogues have sought to move into the digital age in other ways as well. Many are looking to harness technology in order to attract younger members, although not as quickly as some would like. In Pittsburgh, for example, members of Congregation Beth Shalom are using the messaging service GroupMe to boost attendance at evening minyans, while members of the Chabad community consistently use WhatsApp to answer questions and spread community updates. PJC