How to Find Hidden Headstones

I love cemeteries. I’ll occasionally drive to a cemetery, park my car and walk along the paved or dirt roads. There is something very peaceful about the setting. Perhaps its my way of escaping the busyness of life… or perhaps it is because I enjoy the resident company.

As a Find-a-Grave photog volunteer I make it my mission to search out the hardest requests. It’s easy to walk among the stones and photograph those standing and I commend the hundreds of volunteers that do just that. However, a trend I noticed on Find-a-Grave is to dismiss a grave as having no headstone when none is found. I know from experience that this is not always the case.

I have literally found over 100 headstones, stones that toppled, sunk into the earth, and became covered with soil. At times these stones were nearly a foot below the ground.

How does this happen?

In modern burials we use a vault – a concrete enclosure wherein is placed and sealed the casket of our loved ones. The purpose of the vault is to keep the ground above level.

Years ago, before the use of vaults, the casket would be lowered into the ground and covered with soil. The headstone would then be placed. What happens over time as moisture seeps into the earth, the wood casket can rot and its integrity will deteriorate and collapse due to the weight above. When this occurs the ground above will shift down causing a depression in the soil. The headstone will fall with this depression.

Over time this depression will fill with blowing topsoil and debris. The headstone will become buried.

I arm myself with a long metal rod when searching for graves. It is about 4 foot long, is about 1/2 an inch thick, and is topped by a t-bar. Is this tool absolutely necessary to find lost graves? No. I have also used a standard two-prong weed puller. The purpose of whatever tool you decide to use is to penetrate the earth at least 6-10 inches deep in search of a buried headstone.

In the photo below you can see the ground as it appeared when the grave space was located.

Hidden Headstone
I gently probed the ground until I felt a thud. I have been mislead on occasion to unbury a pile of rocks so I now will probe 3 or 4 times around the same area to assure myself this is indeed a buried stone and to save myself from expending time and effort to unearth common rocks.

It is important not to jab the earth with great force. Some of these headstones are quite fragile and could be broken with good intentions. So be careful.

Hidden Headstone
Once a buried stone has been found I use a garden trowel to search out the edges of the stone. I scoop out the soil and place into a large bucket I bring for that purpose. Please don’t just throw the grass and soil over the other graves. I’ve seen where people have done that and it does not make for a pretty site. The purpose of the soil – as long as you have the cemetery’s permission – is to place beneath the stone as you gently raise her to the surface.

I don’t recommend doing this without cemetery permission. And in most cases you may not have to. Check with local and State laws in your area.

I have always sought out permission to both raise and/or unbury a headstone. I would hate to see someone get arrested for doing good. Yes, these headstones should be raised.. and no, a cemetery probably will never get around to doing so… but follow precautions.

After removing the grass and soil to around an inch from the stone’s exterior I remove the rest of the soil and grass that might hinder my access to the stone. In other words I beautify the area through the removal of sod and grass that might grow over the stone in the near future.

I bring a soft-bristled brush (nothing hard-bristled or with metal wires) to brush the remaining dirt from the stone’s surface.

Hidden Headstone
After being under the surface for so many years the stone is going to be encrusted with soil. Pour a bit of water on the surface and wash this off. It may take a few times to remove the soil but the reward is worth it. The water will fill the crevices of the letters making for a very legible inscription.

Take your pad and paper and immediately write this down before the water dries. Take photos of the stone when wet. The inscription will be very visible.

Hidden Headstone
After the unburial (and possible raising of a stone) – be certain to post pictures to Find-a-Grave. I like to take several. I will take at least one of the stone itself when wet and then I will take a couple in perspective to adjacent stones being certain to encompass the area wherein the stone sits. This gives the viewer a nice visual making the stone easier to find.

Hidden Headstone

And most importantly… have fun with this! What a pleasure I receive from the unearthing of stones. You can view the many photos of stones I’ve unburied on my other site… lostgraves.org.

I want to thank you photogs that go the extra step in advance. You are doing the family of these buried ancestral stones a great favor. These headstones haven’t been seen in years. Thank you for your selfless service.

Here are my governing rules that I tell other photogs who are interested in searching for hidden headstones.

Rule No. 1 – Always get the permission of the cemetery and check with local and/or State laws. I know you are doing good but they don’t. 😉

Rule No. 2 – Don’t damage the stone. I can’t emphasize that enough. It is imperative that you don’t do any harm to the headstone. Treat each case as if the stone were extremely fragile. That means don’t use hard-bristled brushes or prod the earth with heavy thrusts. Be gentle.

Rule No. 3 – Have fun!

Jay’s Tools of the Dig…

  1. a 2-pronged weed puller
  2. a 3-5-gallon bucket
  3. gardening gloves (your hands are going to get dirty)
  4. gardening trowel
  5. gallons of water
  6. soft-bristled scrub brush
  7. and perhaps a foam kneeling pad
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6 comments On How to Find Hidden Headstones

  • I think it would be fun to look for hidden headstones. There are a lot of history to those kinds of headstones and it tells a lot about that person. They really wanted people to remember how they were before they passed on.

  • This was very helpful as I know there are buried headstones, I’m thinking, out in Monroe St. Cemetery, in Cleveland, Ohio on in a family plot. I hope to go there one day and do exactly this….find them.

    • Jay Kruizenga

      Overlooked your comment. Thank you. Yes, there are numerous buried headstones in nearly every cemetery. I have found hundreds. A simple prod of the ground can reveal what is buried, if anything.

  • Traci Vallone-Cool

    I am working on the pet cematary and we have found so many graves with the help of military but I can’t find them by myself I do not seem to get it just looking at grass I guess. We found several broken the owner is 93 widowed there aren’t records of where any graves are and I am buying it from her because my Rex is there and I want to make sure it stays loved and cared for in his resting home. I am scared to death we could dig and hit a pet because there isn’t a stone. I found this site on accident trying to figure out what to use to search the ground. I wonder if pet families look at the lost graves?? If you want to see the pictures we took with our cheap phones it is on go fund me type in save Garden of Love Pet Cemetery and you can see how deep some of these stones are. Any suggestions are so appreciated I have no idea what I’m doing it’s learn on the fly.

    • Jay Kruizenga

      Hi Traci. Thank you for your comment. What an honorable task you have taken on… the restoration of a pet cemetery. So awesome. I have never worked with a pet cemetery (only humans) but imagine that they are much the same – perhaps closer spaces. I imagine there was originally a plan and where there’s a plan, there is a pattern. Were I to take on such a task I would arm myself with some graph paper, a construction 100′ measuring tape, and a compass. You need to plot out the existing headstones where they are in comparison to each other. Remove all the debris so you can see clearly. Look for straight lines – a pattern of any sort. Measure spacing between existing surface stones and use this measurement to mark out where stones should be. Then using a long tool, such as a weed puller, gently push into ground in several adjacent spots in search of hidden buried stones. You’ll know when you hit something deep.

      Traci, I would recommend you purchase a book that has been extremely helpful to me. It’s called “Mapping & Documenting Cemeteries” by Pamela Goffinet. You can purchase on Amazon for $29.95, just click here. Good luck Traci in your efforts. I hope my article and the referenced book are useful to you. Let me know if I can be of further assistance.

  • ralph a. applegate

    How do I reach this person . You need a bolt cutter to find concealed headstones at 4452 Rostosky Ridge Road Forward Twp., Allegheny County ,Pa. . I may go with you . At this point I have a lawsuit filed there , and that “Clerk” thinks he /she is a judge . They have not yet returned my copy of Summons and Complaint as is required by law , inter alia. It is a story for national news . I have another one .

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