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Little Neck woman hunts out gravestones

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In her spare time, the Bronx native and licensed massage therapist takes photographs of headstones in various city cemeteries and mails them to relatives unable to visit, asking them only for reimbursement on the cost of getting and developing the pictures.

"I can photograph a grave as well as anybody," she said. "A hundred million people in the U.S. are descended from immigrants who came through Ellis Island. People are scattered throughout the country and are not close by. They want to leave part of their heritage for their grandchildren."

Iovino, a self-described genealogy buff, began her headstone hunting when she started investigating her own family tree several months ago.

While she often visits the graves of relatives buried at St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx, it was not until Iovino discovered the web site www.headstonehunters.com that she began taking pictures of gravesites.

As of Monday, the site listed about 4,700 requests for help searching out headstones and about 2,500 volunteers.

Through the web site, Iovino was able to connect with a man in Ohio who wanted a picture of his father's headstone at St. Raymond's.

"He never saw his father's grave," she said.

Recently a man who got pictures from Iovino wrote her a thank you letter in which he described how difficult it was to stay connected to his family history after a move out West.

"I often thought I should try to visit but never took the time and trouble," he said.

Iovino said it is important for people from the city to volunteer because those living outside of New York are often completely unfamiliar with the area.

"They see Flushing and they don't know it's in Queens or if it's a city or anything else," she said. "They really don't know how to list what they're looking for."

Limited information from family members has not been the only obstacle Iovino found in either headstone hunting or her own personal genealogical search.

Inaccurate or illegible records such as birth, death or marriage certificates as well as a confusing family history often force genealogists to become amateur versions of Sherlock Holmes. Genealogists like Iovino must look for other sources of information like passports, census data or citizenship papers.

In Iovino's own search for her paternal grandmother - who died in 1909 of tuberculosis at the age of 27 - she has found barely legible birth certificates and city records on microfilm that had deteriorated.

"You get real good at it," she said of using public records to track down a family history or headstone.

Iovino credits her grandmother, Nicolina, for sparking her interest in the hobby.

"I always had a fascination for this woman," she said.

Her search for information on her grandmother has taken another twist, Iovino said.

"I found out she was a suffragette," she said. "Now I have to find out if she was ever arrested."

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