Spreadsheets of Death: My Time with the Reclaiming Memories Research Lab

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by Gwyn Hartung

This post is from our 2021 Summer Internship series.

I worked for the Reclaiming Memories Research Lab, an organization that is dedicated to reclaim and boost the memories of communities that have been marginalized throughout history. I specifically focused on the San Jose Cemetery in Austin, Texas which is home to the graves of thousands of people of Mexican and Mexican-American descent. These people were important residents of the area. But unfortunately, the cemetery has since fallen into disrepair with many of the bodies unaccounted for. My internship was to find and catalog the death certificates with the cemetery as the last resting place on the document.

A GoogleMaps image of San Jose Cemetery I and San Jose Cemetery II. These sites are some of the main focuses of the Reclaiming Memories Project and most of my research was related to San Jose Cemetery II.

This internship was very data heavy and involved spending hours pouring over old death certificates and then inputting the information into a spreadsheet. I learned that I am not as skilled at reading cursive as I thought I was. It got emotionally heavy as well; most of the deaths were due to illness, but there were also ones that made me have to take a break. For example, many of the death certificates were for children, often under the age of 5. I also did more research on the cemetery itself and understood how important it was to the history of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Austin.  Everything definitely took a toll on me. But ultimately, I was proud to be able to do this work and help these people’s burial places recognized for what they are: places containing a considerable amount of historical significance that deserve to be taken care of and passed on to the future generations. I am proud to have worked for such an amazing group and I think everyone who values the past should support their mission.

This death certificate is of an infant girl who died from dysentery at the age of six months. It is an example of the many death certificates I had to read and transcribe into the “spreadsheet of death” as I liked to call it.

If you’d like more information about the Reclaiming Memories Project, you can learn more about it here and here. You can also follow their Twitter (@memorylabtx) and Instagram (@reclaimingmemoriestx).

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