Old Cemeteries and Grave Dowsing

by AngelaJohnson

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 ~~ Angela Johnson

old cemetery
old cemetery

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These rods are the same shape as the ones used by the historical society members, but theirs weren't made of copper. I assume they were aluminum or tin.

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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 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 to search for ground water for a well, locate 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 people 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
Updated: 03/28/2017, AngelaJohnson
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frankbeswick on 08/26/2015

Dowsing is odd, but it seems to work. When dealing with odd phenomena we have a choice: say that we don't understand how it works, so deny that something is happening other than by coincidence; or say that even though we don't understand it, we know that something is happening. This is what I think is the issue with dowsing. I have said how it happened for me, even though I was trying to disprove its possibility.

The technique is to walk along with two rods, be they metal or willow, and when one swings dig underneath it. Something should be there. But why?

Detecting oil is difficult as it is far deeper underground than water or a grave is.

There is no connection with ouija boards, which aim to call spirits. This is the trouble with the paranormal, it is a dustbin category in which a myriad of different, unrelated phenomena are dumped.

Mira on 08/26/2015

Never heard of dowsing. It does sound to be something like Ouija boards. What I don't understand is if there is any principle at work. If it was the grave, you could say it was something spiritual, otherworldly. But how come it detects water and oil as well?

Veronica on 08/26/2015

Angela, Yes indeed . It was common practice here amongst the poor. If old Coffins have to be moved to another location for various reasons, it is quite common to find a skeletal infant in cloths or boxes in the grave also.

I think when people see dramas and read fiction about England's past, it gives the very mistaken impression of elegance, grandeur, wealth. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most people in Britain were living a life of desperate poverty and starvation. Some still are. There were several famines and yet we only ever hear about the Irish Famine of 184's.

AngelaJohnson on 08/25/2015

frankbeswick - I sure didn't know that about putting infants into other people's graves, but I can see the need. It's sad, though.

frankbeswick on 08/25/2015

Infant mortality is sometimes concealed by the fact that poor people used to hang around cemeteries with dead babies in shoe boxes and plead with mourners to allow the dead baby to be interred free of charge in a grave. Most people agreed.

Veronica on 08/24/2015

Sometimes when looking round graveyards I have seen several dates around the same time and I always wonder if there was some sort of virus or disease that was going round a village or some disaster locally. Social and local history can be seen at their best with just one visit to a graveyard.

TY for posting.

AngelaJohnson on 08/24/2015

frankbeswick - I've heard too many stories of dowsing for water for me not to believe in it. Often people dowse looking for old water pipes, too. I think the whole subject is fascinating.

AngelaJohnson on 08/24/2015

Veronica - I agree that old graveyards tell a story. Sometimes you'll see the graves of many infants in the same family - infant mortality was high years ago. And if there are several death dates from 1918, you wonder if they died from the flu epidemic - my great grandmother did.

frankbeswick on 08/21/2015

When we sought the pump in the dark the farmhand doused it. I dismissed dowsing and took the divining rods to show that it did not work. To my surprise they moved in my hands without my will. At that moment I swallowed my academic pride and admitted that there was something that I did not understand. Since then there have been more things that have challenged my world view and I have become more open minded about strange phenomena.

Veronica on 08/21/2015

This is fascinating. We used to try dowsing as children and it does work. We weren't doing witchcraft though.

I also love old graveyards. They are an invaluable source of local history and the tomb themselves can tell a life story.

Ty for this. The photos are lovely and evocative. The infant graves are very poignant.

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