Church, genealogist in tussle

It doesn't want him sharing photos, info from cemetery

bfortune@herald-leader.comMarch 16, 2009 

Among the hundreds of graves in the Old Union Christian Church Cemetery on Russell Cave Road, genealogist David Shannon found those of several relatives, including his great-grandparents Julia and Lloyd Harp.

With beginner's zeal, Shannon began to compile the names, birth and death dates on the tombstones, which date back to the early 1800s. "Once I got into it, I figured other people trying to find ancestors would find information in the cemetery helpful," he said.

So he created an independent research Web site, www.oldunioncemetery.com, where he's posted the information on the 475 documented burials collected and a photograph of each visible stone.

But the church board at Old Union took offense.

In February, the church's governing board sent Shannon a letter telling him "to cease publishing pictures of stones ... not part of your family because it is sharing family information without their consent."

Old Union's minister, the Rev. Scott Winkler, said the church's position is that Shannon's actions are an invasion of privacy. "If you're going to publish other people's private information you need to get their permission," he said. "Any cemetery has to protect rights of people buried there."

Winkler said he did not think the church board will pursue the issue with legal action but still felt the need to state its opinion.

The church sells a $10 book with all the tombstone information in it, but no pictures, compiled for an Eagle Scout project several years ago with the help of church historian Leslie Nash Huber, Winkler said.

The difference between the book and Shannon's Web site is "my church board and congregation approved the book," he said. "Since most of these folks (at Old Union) have people buried there, they approved publication of the information."

But Shannon felt he had a right to publish the information; he also considered it a community service.

Birth and death dates are public information, recorded in county courthouses and with the Kentucky Department for Public Health's division of vital statistics.

What is inscribed on a tombstone also is public, said Mary Davis, Stites & Harbison professor of law at the University of Kentucky College of Law. "If a fact is in the public domain, it's not private and it can be published," she said.

It is another matter, Davis said, if someone tries to protect private information. For instance, if you are in your house and a peeping Tom takes photographs of you through a window, that violates privacy you are trying to protect.

"But if something is in the public, and you haven't exercised any protection over it or (indicated) any desire to keep it within your own sphere, you can't tell others they can't have access to it," Davis said.

Some genealogists expressed surprise at Old Union's prohibition on sharing family genealogy information.

Former Fayette County Attorney Margaret Kannensohn said that historically, the reason for tombstone inscriptions was "to commemorate, for the ages, the existence of that person. That's why they went into a lot of description."

If information about the person was intended to be kept private, "it could have been confined to the family Bible or oral tradition, but kept within the family," said Kannensohn, also a genealogist.

A movement called Free Genealogy promotes disseminating as much information as possible, she said, "so everyone has a possibility of researching their roots." Within that movement, she said, "Shannon is doing an incredible service."

Ann Johnson, head of the Kentucky Historical Society's cemetery preservation program, said she has never encountered a cemetery refusing to allow photography or requiring permission of family members.

"You can go to ancestry.com and pull up the same information on anybody you want to. You don't have to be a relative," Johnson said. If the death certificate is available, "you can even print them off."

Lisa Sanden, president of the Fayette County Cemetery Trust, said she was "absolutely shocked" when she learned of the church's unwillingness to share genealogy information from the cemetery.

Kentucky statutes do not address privacy of information on tombstones, Sanden said. "I went back and re-read them. The statutes speak to tombstones not being desecrated and not publishing photographs for profit."

Shannon isn't making a profit, she said; "he is doing this out of the goodness of his heart, sharing his information."

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251.

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