Grave dowsing uncovers buried stories

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, July 13, 2011

BEN HILLYER | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT Don Estes, retired director of Natchez City Cemetery, demonstrates grave dowsing — a scientific technique that locates bodies underground, and also determines sex, size and hemisphere of birth using two metal rods.

NATCHEZ — Don Estes doesn’t believe in ghosts, but the process of grave dowsing he practices hints at the supernatural.

A few wire coat hangers, two five-inch tubes and an unmarked grave are all Estes needs to not only locate the forgotten — but to also identify their sex, size and hemisphere of birth.

Estes, retired cemetery director and author of “Legends of the Natchez City Cemetery,” was first inspired to try grave dowsing while leading a group on an unofficial cemetery tour in the 1990s. A group member, David Aldridge, asked Estes if he had ever heard of the practice.

The rods cross when the dowser steps over a buried body or animal. They turn clockwise if the buried is male, and counter clockwise for females.

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“I told him I didn’t really believe in that kind of thing,” Estes said.

Aldridge gave Estes a pair of dowsing rods, and once he got the hang of grave dowsing, he didn’t stop.

“From the time I learned it — I loved it,” Estes said. “But I really like to do it out here in the cemetery, not so much in the woods.”

Estes said the dowsing rods respond to the magnetic polarity of an individual, which not only locates bodies, but also determines their sex. When passing over a body, the rods will cross. A male will cause the rods to swing clockwise and a female to turn the rods counter clockwise.

“I had to practice for about an hour before I got it,” Estes said. “There’s a sweet spot — you’ve just got to find it.”

Estes said a memorable grave-dowsing attempt occurred when cemetery personnel wanted to locate the bodies of a mother and baby who both died in childbirth.

“Her name was Mrs. Luther Beard Robinson,” Estes said. “We don’t know the first name because there was no marker.

Estes said he was able to find her body at the family plot when the rods swung counter clockwise. As he leaned closer to the ground, he found the baby — a boy, apparently buried in his mother’s arms, causing the rods to briefly turn clockwise.

Estes said the moment when he discovered their final resting place was emotional for him.

While grave dowsing might fulfill a fascination in Estes, the process has come in pretty handy for the cemetery. Estes said the cemetery has adopted a “dowse before dig” approach.

Estes dowses graves at the cemetery.

Estes said it wasn’t until modern times — maybe the 1940s, when cemetery burials were recorded by space instead of family plot to keep better track of who was buried where.

“We think only one in four graves are marked in the cemetery,” Estes said. “So we dowse before digging. Potter’s field is littered with burials, and there’s only one marker for a young woman. Out there you’ve got to dowse or you will run into someone, and we don’t want to disturb bones.”

Estes had a chance to prove that the dowsing rods respond to an individual’s hemisphere of origin. An Australian woman joined a cemetery tour, and volunteered herself to be dowsed.

“I went over her head with it, and (the rods) went out,” Estes said. “It blew my mind.”

Estes said grave dowsing, unlike the practice of water witching, will not locate water, or power lines — only people and animals.

Estes said grave dowsing also works on cremated remains.

Estes was the first at Natchez City Cemetery to start grave dowsing, which is still practiced. Estes said he taught his replacement the practice.

“I would call it a science,” Estes said. “Others might differ, but it’s a science to me.”

Estes said a pair of dowsing rods can be constructed at home. But he can’t explain exactly how to use them — one just have to practice, he says.

“Just keep them level and let (the rods) free fall,” Estes said.

The Office of the State Archeologist at the University of Iowa released a report on grave dowsing in 2005.

The report stated grave dowsing is probably only as good as common sense intuition at finding graves — but did not disprove that grave dowsing if effective.

Call it a mystical hobby or scientific undertaking, grave dowsing still gives grave dowsers a peek into stories interred in the soil.