Google Maps is meant to look up addresses, but it can also provide a window into the lives of the recently deceased.
Three years after her grandparents’ deaths, 19-year-old Luisa Hoenle looked up their old house on Google Maps. Feeling nostalgic if not a bit masochistic, the Switzerland-based art school student input their street address and then clicked on the Street View icon, which showed panoramic photos of the property.
Built decades ago by her grandfather Siegfried, the house had fallen into disrepair since his death from cancer in 2016, its once lush lawn now filled with withered and dying plants. But on Google Street View, Hoenle found older images of the home from before its decline. She scrolled through the photographs, reminiscing, when she noticed something else: her grandfather.
A Google Street View car had unknowingly snapped photos of the late Siegfried while he was gardening in his front lawn, a year or so before he died.
Siegfried, then around 92, wore overalls and neoprene gloves as he watered his plants with a hose. Google Street View cars move as they take photos, so you can see Hoenle’s grandfather from multiple angles: looking up from watering, turning his head to gaze at the strange car passing by with a camera strapped onto its roof, and then losing interest and returning to his plants.
To anyone other than Hoenle and her family, the photos are unremarkable. They’re low-quality, pixelated, and her grandfather’s face is blurry — an automatic privacy feature that Google applies to all faces, addresses, and license plates captured by their Street View cameras.
But to Hoenle, the images are portals into the past, offering candid glimpses of an ordinary day in the life of man who no longer exists.
“It was incredible seeing him just standing there, exactly as I remember him,” Hoenle told OK Whatever over email.
When Hoenle posted her discovery of Siegfried on “Last Images,” a subReddit for sharing the last known photos and videos taken of a person before their death, others chimed in about having found similar photos after looking up an address. Indeed, many people have unearthed similar photos of now-dead relatives on Google Street View.
When looking up her mother’s address last year, a Taiwanese woman found snapshots of her mother, who died in 2014, tending to her potted plants. During a bout of nostalgia, a British expat lurked on her childhood home through Street View and discovered old photos of her deceased mom walking down the driveway, carrying a blue watering can. And, for years, a Kentucky man named Bill Frankel frequently visited his dead father online, scrolling back in time to see the images a Google Street View car captured three years before his father’s death, back when he was still healthy and happy.
“Being able to check in on Dad in the yard (even virtually) helped mitigate the guilt we felt for taking him out of his element [and moving him into a retirement community],” Frankel wrote in an essay for Modern Loss, a website about coping with death. “It was as if he spent the past few years at home.”
It’s no secret that Google Street View cameras inadvertently capture people in their photos. Most of the time, they’re snapped in commercial or business sectors of cities: crossing the street, waiting at a bus stop, taking a smoke break from work.
What’s different about finding dead relatives on Google Street View is that these aren’t strangers or anonymous passersby. Even though their faces are blurred, you can still recognize them. And, unlike regular staged photographs, the stitched-together panoramic Google Street View images are candid and quotidian. They’re not glamorous portraits taken during an important event or on a special day; they’re just split-second glimpses into a regular moment from their everyday lives.
In residential neighborhoods, Google’s cars often capture seniors, especially elderly men, tending to daily chores or spending time in their yards. Redditors have claimed they found photos of their grandfathers raking leaves, retrieving the mail, riding tractors, and even dumpster diving in neighbors’ trash cans. Long-dead dogs have been spotted through Google Street View, as have photos of beloved cars that were sold upon their owners’ deaths.
Sometimes people also find images they don’t want to see. In 2013, a father in Richmond, California, found a satellite image on Google Maps that showed the body of his slain son, shortly after he was shot and killed next to a train track.
But for most people, finding dead relatives in Google Street View can be a great comfort. The father-in-law of a Reddit user called lovelyriver2929 was elated when he discovered his late-wife standing in front of their home in one of the photos taken of their address.
“He goes and looks at it sometimes,” she wrote. “He loves it because it was just her doing something completely normal on a completely normal day.”
For some people, it’s a reminder of what their loved ones looked like before they got sick, when they were still healthy enough to go outside and wash the car or mow the lawn. Sometimes these are even the last known images to be taken of a person.
“My grandpa died in 2017 and no one had any pictures with him from recent years. He only took photos when he was holding babies, and all us grandkids are in our teens and 20s,” one Reddit user wrote. “But I did this same thing and found a Google Street View photo of him mowing his front lawn from 2016. It was really good to see him doing something he loved to do and was always doing when he was here.”
Not everyone is fortunate enough to find images of their relatives — whether currently alive or dead — on Google Street View. I had no luck spotting anything other than cars when I searched through the last eight years of photos for my house, my parent’s house, and my grandparent’s house.
Users can also opt out of having their homes captured by Google Street View, by searching their address and selecting “Report a problem.” This won’t remove the house from the map, but it will automatically blur the entire property, which can make it difficult to locate a photo of a deceased loved one even if they’re standing outside.
Photos of residential properties tend to be updated every two to three years and photos are taken from a moving car, so you also need serendipitous timing to get captured on Google Street View.
Retirees and older folks may have a better chance at being photographed not only because they have extra time to putz around their yards or take up home improvements, but because they’re simply home more often than those with full-time jobs.
“You have to be lucky to get a photo of yourself on there,” Hoenle said of Google Street View.
Her grandfather certainly was. When he was alive, Siegfried tended to the garden in the back more often than the one in the front. The fact that the camera captured him when he was in the front yard was pure good fortune. “I’m very happy,” Hoenle added. “I have two pictures of him where I can see a slice of his life.”
If you’re lucky enough to locate a dead relative on Google Maps, make sure you take a screenshot. Google periodically updates the photos and might remove one at any time without forewarning. Just as with life, nothing lasts forever, not even a blurry Google Street View photo.