Old Cemeteries and Grave Dowsing

by burntchestnut

When I go driving on country roads, I'm always intrigued by old cemeteries.  I like to walk among the gravestones and take photos.  It's like taking pictures of history.

I also like visiting local museums and historical sites.

Last year, I visited the Frankfort Historical Society in W. Frankfort, Illinois, and wandered up to their genealogy room.  Some of the volunteers are putting together a book of all the known cemeteries in Franklin County, Illinois, and listing the people buried in them. 

Because so many grave markers can no longer be read, they are relying on old records or family documents that people donate or let them copy.

Besides the known cemeteries, people who visit the museum tell them about old cemeteries that are now on private land, or graves they remember being in fields or in overgrown wooded areas.

Graves become lost because some old markers were made of wood and have since rotted, and old stones often sink into the land over time, becoming covered in leaves and briars.  

This is where grave dowsing comes in handy.  Several of the volunteers at the historical society knew how to dowse for graves and did so when they thought bodies should be in a certain area, but could find no markers.

The photos below are of old cemeteries and most likely there are graves without markers in the bare areas.

I took all the photographs on this page ~~ Burntchestnut

old cemetery
old cemetery

Dowsing for Graves

Brick grave markerSome people use the term "dowsing" while others use "divining" or "witching".  All three terms mean the same thing.  

Dowsing is sometimes associated with witchcraft, which is where the word "witching" comes from.  But no one needs special powers to perform dowsing. Most people can dowse once they are taught the basics, although some can be better at it than others. 

 Does Dowsing Really Work?

Who knows?  The volunteers at the West Frankfort Historical Society believe it does and I've read other articles on grave dowsing that says it works.  Then there are the scientific studies that disprove it.  Perhaps it's similar to using a Ouija Board ~~ some people believe in it and others don't.


How to Dowse for Graves -- The Technique

Hold the rods lightly in your hands holding them at a 90 degree angle at your waist. Your forearms and divining rods should be held straight out, parallel to the ground. Don't put your thumbs over the bend of the handle. 

Approach the area where you suspect a gravesite, walking very slowly. If a body is there, the rods will cross in front of you when you are over the grave and uncross when you step off of it. 

Don't expect to go out and instantly grasp the technique for dowsing; it sounds simple but it takes practice.  Go to a cemetery with marked graves and try it over and over until you consistently get the correct results.  Every person is different, and what works for one person may not work exactly the same way with you.  Once in a while, someone just can't get it to work, but I read that 90% of the people who try dowsing gets it to work eventually.


Dowsing (or divining) is also used for other reasons such as searching for ground water for a well, locating buried metals, ores or gemstones, and even finding oil.

Dowsing has no accepted scientific evidence that it works, but many people believe it doe
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This is an Older Section of a Cemetery Still in Use

grave stones among trees
grave stones among trees

There are Supposed to be Over 100 Graves in This Woods, but Only One Marker is Still Standing.

old grave in woods
old grave in woods

Locating a Lost Cemetery

Most Christian cemeteries in the United States bury with the head pointing west and the feet pointing east. The layout of the body will later help you determine the gender of the person buried there. 

When trying to locate a lost cemetery, begin walking the area in a north-south direction.  As you cross over a grave, the rods will cross and then uncross when you step off.  Graves are often separated by about three feet.  If you notice that a pattern develops you probably have found a cemetery. 

Next you need to determine the perimeter of the cemetery by continuing to walk north and south.  When your rods no longer cross and uncross, you've probably reached the edge of the burial ground.  Use some kind of marker to mark all four edges.

Determining Who is Buried

Now begin walking east and west and dowse for bodies again.  Christian burial grounds are usually laid out in a grid fashion, so this should tell you if the remains are human or animal. As your rods cross and uncross, watch for the length of the body and you;ll notice differences in sizes.

As you get more experienced, you'll be able to determine if infants, children or adults occupy a grave.  You can determine this by counting the steps you take over the body as your rods are crossed.  Remember, dowsing takes practice.  You may want to return to an established cemetery and count your steps, looking at the grave marker for the person's age upon death.  Of course, this is all approximation since children and adults are different sizes, even if they are the same age.


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I found an old cemetery in Ewing, Illinois. There were only a few gravestones, but quite a few bricks with the words, "Male Adult", "Female Adult", "Male Infant" and "Female Infant" engraved on them.

I assume these graves were found by dowsing since none of them had names.
Bruck grave markers
Flat bricks for grave markers

Male Infant Grave Marker

Small grave marker
Small grave marker

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Updated: on 10/02/2014, burntchestnut
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frankbeswick on 11/19/2014

There is nothing witchy about dowsing, except that some witches do it. When I was at Catholic theological college in Ireland one winter night the water source fed by a pump failed and in the rural darkness we could only locate the borehole by dowsing. It worked. We found it exactly.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/19/2014

burntchestnut, Old cemeteries have stories waiting to be told. Even the neglected ones have a hallowed feel, perhaps lingering from those days when they were maintained.
Dowsing does take practice. It's amazing what can be discerned just by walking around.

Kathy C. on 09/18/2014

Very eerie but fascinating at the same time. Great photographs.

Joan Adams on 08/28/2014

Fascinating indeed!!

cmoneyspinner on 07/20/2013

I thought I was the only one who noticed old cemeteries.

katiem2 on 05/21/2013

WOW, now I know what dowsing is. Old cemeteries are fascinating.

AbbyFitz on 05/20/2013

This was really intriguing. I love old cemeteries and I think it's sad when they become so worn or broken you can no longer tell what was there. How awful it would be to be unknown and forgotten.

BrendaReeves on 05/20/2013

I love old cemeteries and I love this article. Too bad we couldn't go cemetery hunting together.

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