Riverside Cemetery gets the GIS treatment

Corey White consults a clipboard and a copy of a decades old map as he walks a line along a sloping hillside at Riverside Cemetery. He stops and checks surrounding markers, then points to a weathered stone in the grass. “That’s the marker,” he says, holding up the corresponding plot diagram that shows the name of who is buried beneath the faded stone.

In the City of Asheville’s IT Services Department, Scott Barnwell pulls up an aerial view of the cemetery on his computer monitor that shows hundreds of similar plots, color coded and labeled by section, all gathered by White’s footwork. Zooming in on an individual plot, Barnwell calls up the name, number and burial date associated with the grave. Using Esri cloud computing software, the City of Asheville’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department and IT Services are partnering to compile an entire online inventory of the Riverside gravesites that can be accessed via computer or even on a smart phone.

Riverside Cemetery is best known to many as the resting place of author and Asheville native Thomas Wolfe as well as other prominent local historical figures like Zebulon Vance, but another 14 to 15 thousand people have been buried on the 87 acre site in
the past century and a half. The City of Asheville is currently piecing together an intricate puzzle of archival material to pinpoint and identify every grave and build an interactive GIS map of Riverside Cemetery.

Riverside Cemetery is operated by the City of Asheville’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department, and this project sprung up in 2011as a sound business practice for the facility: inventory the occupied gravesites and identify all unused areas that can be marketed and sold as new burial plots. With that information in hand, the City of Asheville can develop a business plan for the cemetery that will allow it to have enough funding for maintenance and upkeep in perpetuity.

But the project is also one of good stewardship, accurately confirming the location of all of Riverside Cemetery’s residents and making that information easily available for people searching for their relatives or historic individuals. The location and mapping part of the project, White says, is about 65 percent complete. The entire database should be nearly finished by the end of the year.

Already, users can access the tool (see below for links) to search for specific names, or wander the grounds and pinpoint plots at their feet, and can see the name, burial date, inscription and a photo of the marker. The two departments collaborated previously on a walking tour of the grounds, and similar creative ways to display this new data may develop as well, Barnwell says.

But first, White must confirm the location of the graves and his search begins in the cemetery’s vault, which is overseen alongside the rest of the facility, by manager Paul Becker. Becker knows the complex art of retrieving information from the vault, having spent 15 years mastering the files. A combination of maps, interment records and other fragments of documentation helps Becker locate a grave. Many of the records were reprinted in the mid-1980s but documents stretch back to the 1800s and were in varying degrees of disrepair. Some records had old cloth sewn into them. Some paper was so old, it would fall apart in your hands, so even the copied documents have holes in the information they provide. But every piece is important.

“You don’t ever throw anything away at a cemetery,” Becker says.

Becker says the demand is there for the information being plugged into the GIS maps. Riverside Cemetery sold in the neighborhood of 30 plots last year, and Becker gets requests at least once a week that have him diving back into the vault. With all the information at the touch of a screen, visualizing the future and the past of Riverside Cemetery becomes easier.


Access the City of Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery digital tool here or download the smartphone app here.