FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

Grave Witching

I’ve heard from a number of folks who read my earlier posts about Grave Witching to find lost or unmarked graves in cemeteries, farms and other locations.  All of them are active ‘witchers’ using the craft to locate lost graves of loved ones, military burials and lost graves in old cemeteries.

As noted in the earlier posts, I’ve used ‘witch sticks’ to locate buried water and power lines for decades as a matter of need, without thought that the activity may seem strange to folks who haven’t seen it done.

Growing up, I frequently saw people bend a couple of metal rods or lengths of wire into short handles and then find the water lines to their corrals, homes, churches, etc., and then toss the sticks and start digging.  The rods were just a tool so they could dig in the right spot and not waste any time and effort, without any more thought than grabbing a circuit locator to find wiring in our walls today. 

I never thought of using witch sticks to find lost graves until articles started to show up in smaller news publications around the world in recent years. 

Wondering if I could locate ‘bodies’ – alive or dead, I made a pair of sticks and then did a search for the giggling bodies of some of our granddaughters scattered across the living room floor.  Sure enough, every time I came to one of them, the sticks crossed and then opened again after I passed by the wee lasses, so the ‘alive’ part of the question was answered.  What about finding the ‘dead’ in their burial locations?

Knowing that I still have the ‘touch’, I’ll take a set of sticks up to the old burial grounds of my ancestors this summer and find the exact location of their graves.

Jack Robinson told me that he frequently uses sticks to find the lost graves of veterans in his efforts to clean up their burial locations.  He also brings and buried tombstones up to the current level of the soil.   Read about his project on his site, Resurrection Mission ~ Protecting Endangered Cemeteries

No all folks use witch sticks to locate lost graves.  Robert Nichols, cemetery sexton of the First Presbyterian Church of Rockaway, New Jersey, enlisted the high-tech help of Ithaca College to search for unmarked graves.  Read the article here.  (It loads slowly.  Be patient.)

If you haven’t seen someone using witch sticks to find lost graves, you’ll enjoy the three videos below.  They are followed by a video of the folks from Ithaca College using their ground penetrating radar equipment with the same goal in mind.

Are you going to give it a try yourself?  You may find the burial spots of some of your ancestral family members on the old homestead too.   Good Luck!



  Click on this link to view the video of Ithaca College students using ground penetrating radar to find unmarked graves.  

25 June 2010 Posted by | Cemetery | , , , | Leave a comment

Abandoned Cemeteries

I’ve spent several years trying to find the actual burial location of a great granduncle and his family.  I knew where they had died but the family was not mentioned in any of the burial records of cemeteries in the area.

Last week, I found the mention of the Simeon Cemetery in Cherry County, Nebraska.  Where was it?   As it turns out, it is located on a farm about 20 miles southwest of where the family died.

Of course, my first thought was to see if anyone had walked through the stones and later posted the data about them on Find-a-grave.  In my initial search, it wasn’t listed, but last year, a wonderful person added many tombstone inscriptions from the cemetery in conjunction with its creation in the Find-a-grave database. 

Although my family wasn’t included in the listings, I had enough information to create memorials for them.  Unfortunately, the exact location of the cemetery wasn’t listed with anything other than the cemetery name.

After one last search a posting about the cemetery surfaced.  The search results included a posting written by Marianne Beel of Valentine, Nebraska that was complete with the transcriptions of inscriptions of the 68 tombstones she was able to read.  Of even more help in my quest, she’d noted that the cemetery was on the P. H. Young Ranch 25 miles south of Valentine in Section 12, Range 29, Township 31. 

Launching the Acme Mapper website made it easy to find the location of the cemetery on the USGS maps on the site.  A quick click and a satellite photo of the area was on the screen.  A jog in the dirt road established an fixed geographical feature in the image.   Launching Google Earth, I was quickly able to zoom in on the earth photo and spot the old trees on the sides of the cemetery.   Clicking on the cemetery to establish a fixed location, a quick glance to the bottom of the screen gave me the exact latitude and longitude of its location. 

I passed that information on to the folks at Find-a-grave who have since updated the cemetery record with its exact location. 

There were only a few burials in the cemetery in the last 50 years with the last one dated September 1974.  Looking at the aerial photo, it is readily evident that it doesn’t receive much traffic and little if any trimming and maintenance, but now folks looking for the location can find it by just visiting the Find-a-grave site.

How many abandoned cemeteries are in the U.S. let alone in the world?  Genealogist love tombstone information not necessarily because it is correct but it is a good indicator and it usually gives them the final resting place of their loved ones.

Searching for abandoned cemeteries on the net, turns up a frighteningly large number of results and that is just the cemeteries that have been included in postings on the web.  The results listings seem to go on and on as you modify your search terms.

State, church, civic and other entities are frequently included in the results asking for help or telling how to restore abandoned cemeteries. 

In my wide excursions throughout the west, I’ve found numerous cemeteries in abandoned towns, mining locations and old waystops.  The wooden markers are rarely readable but in some cases the writing is still legible.  I’ve taken photos of the markers and have donated them to local officials and groups who live in the area and say that they will do ‘something’ to ensure the burials aren’t lost to history.  Thus far, that promise is rarely kept.

In the west, the old burial ground are typically overtaken with sage brush in the valleys and forest growth at the mining sites in the mountain.  They could be cleaned and at least partially restored by half a dozen adults with willing hands in the course of a day.  In the east and locations with abundant growth, they may take longer, but the the work can be completed with focused effort.

Are you looking for a good deed opportunity in relation to your interest in genealogy and ancestry?  Consider taking your family, organization, scout troops on a day trip and reclaim one of these sacred sites.   Pay it forward.  You efforts will pay you back with interest one day.   Guaranteed.

Thanks to all of you have already engaged in this wonderful work.

27 April 2010 Posted by | Cemetery, Headstones, Tombstone | , , , , , | Leave a comment