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His Finger Is on the Pulse of an Underground Culture

Internet Guide

A fascination with cemeteries has grown into a sizable database.

October 26, 2000|DAVID COLKER | Times staff writer David Colker covers personal technology. david.colker@latimes.com

Jim Tipton knows the addresses of thousands of celebrities, and he gives them out on his Web site for free. One catch--they're all dead.

Tipton's site at http://www.findagrave.com is an ever-growing repository of information on where the famous and unknown are buried in cemeteries around the world.

His database of the famous has more than 12,000 entries, many with pictures of the grave sites and, in a few cases, even Global Positioning System coordinates.

"It's a joy for me," said Tipton, 28, who runs the site out of his home in Salt Lake City. "It started out as a pure hobby. I never dreamed it would go this far."

Hobby?

"I'm a very introverted person, in general," he explained. "Cemeteries are places you can go and not see anyone else for hours. It's not like a park where you worry about someone throwing a Frisbee by you--they are nice and peaceful."

At Find a Grave, you can search for grave sites by names, locations or "claim to fame" categories such as actors, authors, criminals, military figures, musicians, scientists and sports figures.

A quick look found that Groucho Marx rests in a cemetery in San Fernando; Marian Anderson in Philadelphia; Babe Ruth in Hawthorne, N.Y.; George Patton in Luxembourg; Jean Harlow in Glendale; Scott Joplin in Astoria, N.Y.; and Janis Joplin in an unknown spot in the Pacific Ocean where her ashes were scattered.

Also on the site is a database of the "non-famous" that has more than 2.5 million entries, mostly imported from existing databases. And there is a spot you can click to order a Find a Grave T-shirt that includes the site's motto, "We're history."

Tipton long ago got over the fact that people think his fascination with cemeteries is morbid, bordering on disturbed. But he regularly hears from visitors to his site who feel persecuted for having the same "hobby."

"I get this a lot: 'My friends think I'm a freak; my family is worried about me. I'm so glad to find out there are thousands of people like me who enjoy going to cemeteries,' " Tipton said.

While in college in Grinnell, Iowa, he spent free weekends paying his respects to the famous dead.

"I made a pilgrimage to Al Capone in Chicago," he noted. And for fun, he compiled lists of burial sites. "I would go to the library, get a biography and skip to the last page."

In 1995, while working odd jobs to make ends meet, he designed and put up his first Find a Grave site on the Web and was amazed at the number of visitors he got right from the beginning. He discovered a community of people much like himself. "I wasn't alone," Tipton said.

Many of them started contributing their own lists to the site and reported whenever they had made a new find. One man in Los Angeles, where a disproportionate share of the famous dead are interred, has submitted 1,527 photos.

Tipton said an average of 20,000 unique visitors a day hit the site, which is supported by banner advertising.

A few months ago, he quit his job as a Web site designer at the University of Utah to manage the site full time. His wife and sister also help out.

"There are a lot of dead people out there I don't have on the site," he said. "There is certainly room for growth."

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