We are pleased to share this article written by John Skakel, who is a member of the Chatham-Kent Cemeteries Restoration / Preservation Project Team. This is a team of volunteers put together to primarily make the old cemeteries of Chatham-Kent in Ontario safe again, but in the process also to find old monuments and document them by photography, etc. They have worked on thousands of old monuments bringing them to the surface and straightening them even helping to develop some new techniques in the process. John and Les Mancell have been able to find about a third of the known old cemeteries in the County whose locations have been lost for as long as 50 to 100 years . They will be continuing with that project again in the Spring in hopes of finding another third of them next year. Some totally new and formerly forgotten ones have been found again totally by accident. Some have been found in a different location altogether.
They have been told that the whole restoration / preservation project is one of the biggest of it’s type (done by volunteers) in North America right now.
Why Find Lost Cemeteries and/or Burials?
Often have been the times that people ask why I would try to find the location of a cemetery that has been lost for years. For decades. For a century. The people there are forgotten. Their monuments are gone. So what good does it do to locate that old cemetery or find the location of a lost plot in a cemetery? I truly believe that we should still remember these people. That their lives still need be recognized today. That we should always respect them and remember their history. I believe that if we forget our history, we obliterate a part of our lives. I also believe that we should do everything possible to ensure old graves are not dug up again.
How to find these lost locations
Sometimes someone might mention that Cemetery XYZ had all of the monuments removed 60 years ago and now NO one knows where it was. It has now returned to forest or has been plowed over continually. Can we find it again or find the boundaries of a known cemetery? The answer is likely Yes! But we must always qualify that of course, as we can never say we can find these for certain!
Also remember that the banks of our rivers and the sides of our rail roads are filled with burials of individuals. We will NEVER find all burials. We need to understand that such is impossible!
Some times a person might like to know how many relatives were interred in their plot. Or a family may have had monuments disappear under the ground.
Tools to find Lost Cemeteries. Lost Monuments. Lost plots.
We caution that the most valuable tool to do this is a pencil and paper and some good reading glasses. Research is ALWAYS your primary tool. Never replace research and good old prodding and digging out monument scripts with dowsing or GPR. But supplementing it with those is tremendously valuable. Always remember to take along a pencil and note book, a cell phone that will record messages.
Once you do your research though you should ALWAYS back it up with information gained by using a shovel. A pointed tile prod. A screwdriver. And maybe a piece of copper wire. Just remember that the shovel is to unearth text. NEVER to disturb burials.
A tile prod is simply a long piece of metal rod about a meter long with a handle on top to make it “T” shaped. At the bottom is a point. Just barely above that point it has a slightly bigger “Ball” shape on it. This shoves the soil away from the prod to reduce friction. When you shove the prod into the ground you will soon begin to realize if you are hitting wood or stone or brick.
Often using a prod like that you can find lost monuments, or head or foot stones. These are generally quite close to the surface. A plain and very old screwdriver can help with this as well. Just remember though that if you find a monument that is about 6 feet long it is likely NOT a monument but indeed a vault cover. So NEVER begin to dig there. We have found burials in cement vaults with as little as 8 to 12 cm of soil covering them. So, be careful.
All of these things are invaluable tools.
The most important is the pen and paper to do research beforehand and to record what is found while searching for the site. The shorter prod is for downward prodding and the longer prod to do angle prodding to find small monuments that might be buried there.
Lastly the Copper Dowsing Wire to try to find the actual location. A Hand Held GPS unit is also a good idea to record the position of cemeteries after you find their location.
Using Dowsing and Ground Penetrating Radar.
One thing I notice is that very often today, there is great confusion about Dowsing and Ground Penetrating Radar and their use in finding cemeteries and graves.
Some of the confusion?
Does dowsing work? You bet it does! Is dowsing 100% accurate? No, it isn’t. But most times it does work and work extremely well. But there are a whole lot of misunderstandings about it and I hope to clear some of those here. Similarly, people think that dowsing should be replaced by GPR now as GPR is so much more accute. But we should all remember that these are two tools that work really well together. Neither really replaces the other. Both give us huge volumes of information. Neither are 100% accurate!
Dowsing and GPR are two different methods of finding information on old graves. They are the merging of the “Old and the New”, and as such both can be useful tools in our work today.
The biggest error that folks make in sticking prods into the ground is that they forget that they must be methodical. Deep monuments are seldom found by prodding on the angle. Small foot stones are seldom found by prodding straight down as one misses them. To properly prod an area it must be first prodded about every 15 cm jabbing the prod into the ground straight down. To find foot stones the ground must be prodded again on the angle. Preferably more than one angle. THIS folks is WORK! BIG WORK!
But please remember that other methods are simply wasting your time. If you hit something unusual look at that sharp end of the prod or screw driver. If it looks “red” you are probably hitting a brick base. White means stone. Soon you get to know the “Feel” of the prod if you hit a root for instance. Remember that if you just shove a prod into the ground here and there you might as well go home. You will find NOTHING that way.
Also remember that it is very difficult to prod very hard dry ground. In mid summer you may not be able to do it. Spring is the best time usually.
The End of the Prod. Note the pointed end and the “Metal Ball” just above it. To work well a prod should be made exactly like this. The pointed end is a MUST in order to allow the rod to be pushed into the hard soil. The “Metal Ball” is a must as it shoves the soil back from the rod itself, thus decreasing friction from the earth to effectively zero. Blacksmiths can make these for around $20.
Imagine if you could go to a spot and see if anything is buried there. Just like Superman! Imagine finding a cemetery last known a hundred years ago. Or a long abandoned family plot. Did you know that finding that lost cemetery again is possible?
Many here are going to refer to what I am about to say as simply legend. As uneven soil. As magnetism. This must always be taken as unproven. But this is an unbelievable tool to find old cemeteries and burials. This is not a legend, or witchcraft. Or any simple magnetism. It is a tool that I have used countless times. It is also NOT a tool to replace proper research! It is a tool to work in tandem with it.
Yes folks, you can “Look under the ground using a piece of wire”! Can anyone do it? Some people have trouble. Is it technique or were they just not born with the ability? I just cannot figure that out.
Dowsing, Divining, and Witching are all the same thing. I used to question dowsing myself saying it was an old superstition. I had tried it once when I was young and it seemed to work. Then never tried it again for almost 40 years. About 10 years ago I saw 4 or 5 people work for two days straight to find an old tile drain. Places we just had to quit. My cousin said “I am going to bring my son over here tomorrow and see what he can find by dowsing.” Next day Paul found everything in about two hours including some areas where our flags from the last two days were incorrect. Digging the next few days proved that his dowsing was correct and our prodding down with metal prods to find the tile was wrong in EVERY case where there were two locations possible shown. I instantly knew this was not just superstition. I had seen it work!
The easiest way to dowse is to take a piece of #10 Copper wire. Bend it so that it is about 18 inches long with a handle of about 5 inches. I like to leave the plastic coating on the longer 18 inch part. It works best to keep that portion very straight. #14 for instance will NOT work as well. You can also use an old coat hanger but copper wire is generally accepted as the best.
Most people use two wires. One in each hand. But I find it is just as effective and easier to use one wire only. I call the two wire method “After Dinner Dowsing”. MUCH More showy. I find it takes more concentration to do after dinner dowsing by far. It is much easier to concentrate properly on just one wire.
I found that when I was learning to do this ancient technique, a good start was to try it first over known graves. As I began to do this, I would hold the wire in front of me pointing outward and absolutely level. As I walk forward very slowly, it will turn as I walk over formerly disturbed earth. By backing up and going forward I could gradually find the “Head and the foot” of an old grave.
***Remember that you are NOT sensing the remains though. ONLY the hole in the ground. If you try to do this remember that the wire must be ABSOLUTELY free to move on it’s own. Just a little bit of friction from your hands and it will not work. It might also help when you first try it to go to level ground, and close your eyes the first few times.
Once you catch on to the technique you can begin to search multiple graves and find the edge of the grave yard. AND, you can find totally lost cemeteries. If the wire turns very quickly it is likely a baby’s grave. I always remember that a grave is very short. If I sense something and it is 4 meters or longer for instance with no break in the middle, it is more likely tile or an old building. If it is 1 or two meters long it is more apt to be a grave. If I find 5 former holes like that together in a pattern, that is even more likely to be a series of graves than just one former hole in the ground. One hole might mean an old water tank or animal burial. Shafts in a pattern are much more reliable.
Talking to the wire. To take this further, hold the wire in front of you, at 45 degrees. Say very sternly and loudly “Wire, give me a “Yes”. The wire will turn side ways. “Wire give me a NO” and the wire will turn back toward the front. I can go to a small cemetery with no monuments left visible and stand near one edge somewhere. Say, “Wire show me the nearest corner of this cemetery” and it will point to the corner. I go in the direction it is pointing and when it turns quickly I am standing over that corner. I mark it with a flag. Then, I say “Wire show me another corner of the cemetery that you have not shown me. I follow it and do this twice more and I have laid out the four approximate cemetery corners. Of course you need to remember in some cases there are no burials right in the corner, so you need to always interpret slightly.
Next you stand exactly over top of what it shows as a grave with the wire pointed off to 45 degrees. You say in a stern loud voice, “Wire is this grave more than 4 feet deep?” If the wire turns cross wise it is Yes. If the wire turns forward it is NO. Then, say “Wire is this grave more than 3 feet deep?” By doing this here and on two or three other graves you can get an idea of cover left over the graves. And you can begin to be even more certain that they were not just garbage holes left from many years ago for instance. Garbage holes are likely very shallow.
Interpreting what you have found. A couple of things to remember though. A cemetery generally has unused plots. So if EVERY plot is used, it is a clue that this might NOT be a cemetery. If you only find one possible burial, it is highly suspect. A horse maybe? An old gas tank? Etc. If the suspected area is large and square in layout but with no blank spots might it be possible that it is graves moved there from somewhere else? A Potter’s Field for instance will show like this, or a “Singles” burial area as well. In a singles area often plots are sold one at a time only as needed and so all will be filled with no empty spots between them. Remember that not all areas with no vacant spots are Potter’s Fields. Do not fall into that trap as that is a big mistake!
Ways to use dowsing in cemeteries. Remember that dowsing has other uses besides finding lost cemeteries. Applications where it is used much more often. Cemetery staff often use it to confirm old burials before digging for new ones. Or, if you think that there is a missing monument on a plot you are working on, just look for the position of monuments you can see. “Look” underneath to get an idea of burial spots. Many different possibilities.
Remember though that the wire is very sensitive to electrical fields so a power line overhead or underneath will erase the proper readings. ***Never forget that dowsing is not always 100% accurate. It is a tool. Nothing more!
I can also dowse using a tile prod. Using a heavy pry bar. I can even sort of do it using a garden spade. But the #10 copper wire is the most accurate. The spade only barely works. Remember though that by times you might not want people to know you are dowsing. So, simply balance a tile prod on your finger down at your side. Just “walk around”. People will think you are simply walking around when you are actually locating. I use that technique often to avoid questions and comments!
Ground Penetrating Radar
We are lucky in Chatham-Kent to have access to Ground Penetrating Radar Equipment.
For those who do not know GPR, imagine a push power lawn mower with a digital screen up at the handle. That screen gives a readout somewhat similar to the monitors that you see in hospitals. You need to know how to read the screen to be able to interpret the results. But it shows variances in soil along with depth. When you dig into soil it always changes it’s structure, and it is that change that you are sensing.
I will not get into using GPR here as only professionals use it. If you own one you already know how to use it. If you don’t own one, detailed descriptions are useless.
The disadvantage of GPR that we have found is that it is very limited in ability to “See” things right under ground level. i.e. Shallow. It is not the best for finding lost monuments for instance. But on the other hand to find actual burials where they are looking deeper they can be of great help. If you dowse a grave for instance you only “Sense” the disturbed soil. If you use GPR to scan that grave, you can often get a very good idea on whether there are remains in it.
What we have found is that if you have a cemetery project on the go, the good old tile prod to find buried monuments is hard to replace. To find shafts that are still in use today or were used long ago before remains were removed, a dowsing wire is simple and quick to use. To try to find out if there are remains in that shaft, and to try to prove that it IS even more likely to be a grave, a GPR scan is irreplaceable. All three work together. However, you can probably get a piece of wire for free. A prod might cost you $20 if you have it made for you. So, they are very inexpensive as beginner’s AND later as EXPERT’S tools.
Always remember that if you find a cemetery using these methods that you qualify that information with a LOT of research. Dowsing for instance is a much more reliable technique than most people think. I can find burials. The edges of old buildings. The position of old schools and churches. Septic tanks and tiles. I have found VERY LIKELY burials hidden under roads where 1.5 meters of fill was put over top of the old ground level. But it is NOT an exact science! But if you then check back through deeds, news clippings, and other articles you can begin to put things together.
Also remember that you might find a cemetery that has changed location at night some time. i.e. A cemetery was recorded at one location. But you will find it next door. So, not only can research prove your dowsing location, sometimes dowsing can help to prove your research. I seldom assume historical documentation of a lost cemetery is absolutely correct without cross checking by dowsing it! Unless you know you have sizable monuments that have never been moved.
Always remember one thing. If you cannot find any of those facts, you still should document what you find with qualifications. Remember that we know very little to nothing about some of these old cemeteries today. In 30 years time, people will know FAR LESS! If you say “Gee I can’t tell for absolute 100% certain that this is an old cemetery so I can’t record it!” then maybe 30 years later someone will dig there. Or maybe a year later someone will find a bit of information that would prove it’s existence, but that information cannot stand on it’s own. But with your information, proof might then be found. These SHOULD be documented, and MUST be documented as “Possible locations”. The old method of only recording absolutely known facts is wrong in these cases. You always record but with very abrupt warnings. You absolutely never throw possible information away with this kind of work.
I hope that this has given you some ideas that might work in your area to find lost cemeteries, monuments, or burials. All it takes is a bit of practice. And a whole lot of research as well.