TEMPLE TERRACE — Chuck Matson leans back in his desk chair, bare feet crossed on the brown carpet and suspenders loose on his blue checkered shirt. He begins to describe the photos as they flash across a screen.
A grave shaped like a tree trunk, another covered with shells. Three granite hearts conjoined to connect a family. An etching of a truck in the mountains carved on a headstone.
Matson uses an oxygen machine to help him breathe, but his voice is steady as he tells of how the church by the Oak Tabernacle cemetery is moving, and how his favorite cemetery, the L'Unione Italiano one owned by the Italian Club, takes the best care of its gravestones.
Matson knows cemeteries, everything about them.
In the file cabinet next to his desk are records on every cemetery in Hillsborough County. He uses old county maps to locate those no longer in existence.
He flips through the binders and books that line his desk: a 1940-41 Works Progress Administration survey of veterans' graves, an eight-volume set of Hillsborough County cemeteries 1940-1985.
He has spent five years visiting every cemetery in Hillsborough, digging through obituary archives, photographing headstones and cataloguing the names into an online website.
Matson can't go out to the cemeteries anymore because of his health, so he relies on volunteers to send him photos. He adds them to his database of 130 cemeteries, 119,546 graves, 1,106 obituaries and 42,455 photos of gravestones.
"I'll never finish it. There's too much," he says. "I don't have enough time left."
Matson has a simple explanation for his obsession: He doesn't want to spend his days watching soap operas. After the genealogical community six years ago helped him complete his own family tree, he decided to give back.
He's now a member of the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness Society. He posts his expertise as "Hillsborough County obituaries," and people from around the country contact him to find obituaries of their loved ones.
But Matson is worried about the future of some cemeteries in Hillsborough. The government applies a property tax to them that Matson fears could be too much in these tough economic times.
County officials say they don't see a problem. Cemeteries are only taxed on their available plots, says Warren Weathers, Hillsborough's chief deputy property appraiser. So any cemeteries that are full don't pay any taxes.
"It comes down to death and taxes," Weathers says. "You can't tax dead people."
In his 68 years, Matson has done everything from running a construction company to managing an adult entertainment website. Before a bout of pneumonia left Matson tethered to the oxygen machine, he served on the Thonotosassa Chamber of Commerce.
In the 1980s, the board discovered it was the guardian of money designated for the upkeep of the Thonotosassa Cemetery, a small plot with 340 graves. The board turned the money over to the county and Matson forgot about it.
Nearly 25 years later, he was rifling through old papers when he came across information on the cemetery.
"I went out there and one thing led to another," he said.
At first, Matson decided to digitize the Thonotosassa Cemetery by taking pictures of each headstone and researching the families.
"I had gotten so much help doing my own family history that I thought I'd pay back the genealogical community. I had pretty much finished my own, so the more interesting this became," Matson said.
The Thonotosassa Cemetery site is the most extensive because of Matson's connection to the area. He has traced the story of its first inhabitant, a 14-year-old girl who died in 1855 from a rattlesnake bite, back to when her family left Georgia in a wagon to come live in Florida.
He's followed land deed records to discover the Civil War generals who owned the land before donating it to Hillsborough County.
Matson says he sometimes spends 10 to 12 hours a day researching obituaries and cataloguing cemeteries.
"I've been known to wake up in the middle of the night to work on things," Matson said. "Time doesn't have much meaning. Something catches my attention, and I get absorbed."
Matson already has his burial site reserved in Sunset Memory Gardens in Thonotosassa. But until the time comes for him to make his final visit to a cemetery, he will continue his eternal task of cataloguing the dead of Hillsborough County.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Biz Carson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2441.