On The Hunt For Grave Sites

Written by admin on Thursday, October 1, 2009

On the hunt for grave sites
Published Online July 12, 2004

– Stan Pentecost doesn’t believe in ghosts, or UFOs, because he’s the kind of guy who needs to see something to believe it.
So, when he read that dowsing – using two rods to find underground water – could also be used to locate graves as well as determine the size and gender of the deceased, he had to try it.
“I still can’t explain it, but it works,” said Pentecost, a member of the Illiana Genealogical and Historical Society, and resident expert on Vermilion County’s 138 cemeteries.
Dowsing is a centuries-old practice of using wooden sticks or metal rods to locate underground sources of water, metal and graves.
More commonly used for and associated with locating water sources, also referred to as “water witching,” members of the Illiana historical society decided to test the practice Sunday afternoon northeast of Catlin at Pate Cemetery, an old plot where the perimeters are uncertain and headstones have been destroyed or removed.
After a brief orientation on the technique for the 20 people – some skeptical, but all curious – who gathered at the cemetery, Pentecost demonstrated dowsing, and then passed out pairs of rods for everyone to try.
To dowse, a person holds lightly, by the short ends, two L-shaped metal rods in front of them with arms at a 90-degree angle, elbows at the waist and forearms extended parallel to the ground. When crossing a grave, or water, the two rods will move from their parallel position to a crossed position, and back to parallel when moving away from the grave.
Pentecost’s own words, “I can’t explain it, but it works,” were heard over and over again Sunday as people walked around the cemetery and watched the rods cross in front of their own eyes.
“I had a chill come up my back when they crossed,” said Sally Powell, genealogical and historical society member and coordinator of Sunday’s activity, who admits she was skeptical before she tried it. Powell got the idea to dowse Pate Cemetery when she read about another genealogical and historical society in southern Illinois that successfully used the practice to locate some unmarked graves.
Pate, an old, small cemetery near a creek that has headstones dating back to at least the 1800s, has some unmarked graves and some headstones tossed to the side with no idea where they go.
Powell and some other members hope to carefully and methodically dowse the entire area, determine the cemetery’s perimeter and any unmarked graves, and possibly specify some of the unmarked graves by referring back to old records and maps of the cemetery.
During Sunday’s activity, participants found some unmarked graves in a wooded area adjacent to the cemetery, where old graves most likely became overgrown through the years, eventually obscuring the true perimeter of the cemetery. Powell said she and other members will soon return to dowse.
“It’s strange, but it works,” said Powell, who explained that about 10 percent of people who try dowsing cannot do it. “There’s something there though; an energy or something.”
Through the years, some have associated the practice with witchcraft, or demonic activity, but most who believe it works, point to unexplained scientific reasons. Some scientific theories claim the rods pick up a disturbance in the earth’s magnetic field or gases emitted by decaying bodies. But according to Brenda Marble, another historical society member in the U.S. and practiced dowser with her own Web site, the rods also work when passed over a living human, so she believes the body itself emits a magnetic field that remains even after a person dies.
It’s from Marble’s Web site that Powell gleaned dowsing instructions for Sunday’s activity, explaining techniques for not only locating graves, but determining size, general ages and gender of the buried.
By walking the length of the grave, and marking when the rods cross and uncross, the dowser can determine if the person was an adult – even a tall or short adult – or a child or infant, but determining the difference between a short adult and an adolescent would be more difficult. For gender, the rods are held in a different manner, but rotate clockwise if it’s a male, and counterclockwise if it’s a female.
Russ Burgin of Danville, who practiced the technique Sunday, is less concerned about gender and more concerned about locating possible unmarked graves in Johnson Cemetery on West Newell Road north of Danville. A board member of that cemetery, Burgin wants to dowse at two separate areas that contain no marked graves. But people claim graves once existed in both spots.
“It think it will work,” said Burgin, who explained that the almost-5-acre cemetery is getting full, and the board would like to expand into the two areas if they can determine that no unmarked graves exist. “We could extend the life of the cemetery by about 10 years.”
Burgin was familiar with dowsing for water, but never knew about searching for graves until the genealogical and historical society planned Sunday’s activity. Walking through Pate Cemetery with dowsing rods proved to him it works for both purposes, but he knows some won’t believe it.
“Some people, they just think you’re crazy,” he said.
You can reach Tracy Moss at (217) 443-8946 or via e-mail at tmoss@news-gazette.com.