How to find a gravesite? And other questions

Making the journey. Early one Friday morning, Team VA piled into a tiny Ford Focus with some pastries, some muffins, and a mission. Our destination: Massachusetts National Cemetery, in Bourne. We wanted to experience finding a specific gravesite first-hand.

We had quickly realized when conducting our secondary research that exploring the National Cemetery Association (NCA) website was not sufficient. We had grown familiar with the site’s gravesite locator tool, but we sought to learn more. To really understand the user journey, we had to make a journey ourselves.

The entrance to the Massachusetts National Cemetery

The entrance to the Massachusetts National Cemetery

Keith and Devyn had a specific mission in mind: to locate the gravesite of Petty Officer Tyler John Trahan.

Keith and Devyn used a kiosk in the visitor center to look up Petty Officer Trahan's burial location: section 41, gravesite 1456. The kiosk printed a black and white map of the cemetery with road names and section numbers.

Grave Locator kiosk in Massachusetts National Cemetery and map of the grounds

Grave Locator kiosk in Massachusetts National Cemetery and map of the grounds

Navigation grew more complex soon after they hopped back in the car. Even for two self-declared “map people,” Keith and Devyn had trouble orienting the map with its curving streets, circular-shaped sections, and small text. When they found section 41 — marked by an engraved, narrow granite post — they realized that snow covered many of the flat grave markers. Undeterred, they walked up and down the rows, brushing off snow to reveal grave numbers, until they found Petty Officer Trahan’s grave and paid their respects.

Paying respects at Petty Officer Trahan’s grave

Paying respects at Petty Officer Trahan’s grave

Meeting the staff. We also spoke with the Cemetery Director, Assistant Director, and Head Foreman. They told us about the types of people who visit, the layout of the cemetery, and how staff and volunteers interact with visitors.

We had five main takeaways:

  1. Over 50% of people who visit during office hours are older (aged 65+). We must ensure we understand the needs of this group, and if they are different from those of other groups.

  2. The cemetery has a higher volume of visitors than we realized. The Bourne cemetery staff estimated approximately 200 visitors per day, on average. (We later spoke to cemetery staff at Fort Snelling and Riverside whicho typically receive upwards of 1000 visitors per day.)

  3. Cemetery staff and volunteers often help visitors to locate graves, even though that is often beyond the scope of their job description.

  4. The cemetery has limited human resources. Bourne has employed only one additional staff member to manage the cemetery in the last 15 years, despite adding many more grave sites. They rely on volunteers, such as those from the SFC Jared C. Monti Foundation, to help plant flags on Memorial Day for example.

  5. Many people visit outside of office hours. In early morning, evening, weekends, and on national holidays, visitors likely rely more heavily on the grave locator kiosk. During these times, the public information center is not staffed.

When we visited, many gravesites were covered by snow

When we visited, many gravesites were covered by snow

Understanding our users. Once we had a better understanding of NCA cemetery operations, we narrowed our focus to two user groups: veterans, and family members and friends of veterans.

Meet Patrick*. Patrick served in the US Marine Corps for seven years. He now teaches naval science at a college and still actively engages with the military community. Patrick’s deployments included Afghanistan, where he lost several close friends and teammates and experienced significant psychological trauma.


"For me, navigating through that was a nightmare."

- Patrick, Marine Corps Veteran


Patrick has paid his respects in three NCA cemeteries. His first visit was especially difficult. He remarked, “There weren’t clear markers...I just didn’t understand the layout.” At two of the three cemeteries Patrick visited, his friend was not in the system or the terminal malfunctioned. Once, he relied on a friend’s approximate directions.

Most recently, Patrick visited Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego County. He was reluctant to try the grave locator terminal given his previous experiences, but it worked. Using the small map print-out, the grave number and a larger map in the visitor center, he found the site relatively quickly. Landmarks that appeared on the larger map helped him to navigate, and the number markers were clear. He left with a positive impression of the cemetery.

We will continue to speak to more users throughout the project. We highly value understanding the user journey, testing our assumptions, and receiving users’ feedback at all stages of the design process. So expect to read about more users on this blog soon!

Keith Caton, Athena Kan, Emily Middleton, Devyn Paros, Yuko Tanaka

*Name has been changed