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…

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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10 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 .

  • Cynthia Wadsworth

    We are trying to reveal the headstones found in our family cemetery that were buried when previous landowners desecrated the cemetery. They dug holes and stacked headstones on top of each other. We have notified the State DNR , Historic preservation, etc. and I feel as descendants we have the right to bring up some headstones (although we have been told only the ones close to the surface, not more than 4 to 6 inches into the soil.). Most are broken because the landowner (City of Barnesville GA) drove heavy trucks over the graves and buried headstones when they desecrated the cemetery by trimming the 100 to 150 year old trees back to stumps. We have brought a few to the surface following your guidelines. But we are continuing to find headstones and more holes with stacked headstones. We are continuing to unearth the shallow headstones carefully. There were so few headstones at first, now we are guessing there are up to 100 + buried throughout the cemetery. First burial was in 1849. Last 1929. Most headstones have been in the earth so long that they are not readable. Some say leave them in the ground, but we the descendants refuse. Wish we had help to know what to do. We are trying to do the right thing. Any ideas?

  • Jay Kruizenga

    Hi Cynthia. I do apologize for the late response, I have had family visiting and have been away from my blog for a period. First, let me commend you for what you are doing – most people wouldn’t bother. You are certainly doing the right thing! When I find hidden stones beneath the surface, I don’t have a familial interest in the project – I do it because I love it. Many of these headstones haven’t been seen for decades. And it gives me a certain amount of pleasure remarking the graves of those who have passed before.

    In your situation you DO have a familial interest as this is YOUR family cemetery! That being said I believe you DO have the right to unearth as many stones as you can find. But… governing authorities believe they know what is best and we must play by their rules (or proceed without getting caught). Seriously, I am all for following guidelines and think we must abide by the law – or get that law changed. Have you sought legal counsel? If it is your family cemetery then you must have legal rights. Problem I foresee is that the land is owned by the City of Barnesville and not your family. I don’t know why the City would dig holes and stack headstones knowing full-well that this was a sacred site. Doesn’t seem right to me. And I think it may be the beginnings of a strong case against them.

    For now I would proceed with caution and follow the guidelines as directed – no more than 4-6″ in the soil. That doesn’t seem like much but simultaneously you could get the ball rolling to proceed deeper via legal means. Perhaps form a preservation society of your own (ask your lawyer) and then approach the City with your proposal to rededicate and re-beautify the cemetery.

    I don’t know Georgia Law (Code) as it pertains to burials and cemetery designations. A lawyer could help with that. Your formed society would consist of not only the descendants of these lost graves but any that might have an interest in preservation. Perhaps approach your local genealogical societies and see what interest might be found there.

    The Georgia Genealogical Society

    The Barnesville Lamar County Historical Society

    Seek out help from local societies like these for advice and assistance. This is what I would do first. Then after finding out the level of interest in preservation of the cemetery, form a legal preservation society that is better suited to deal with governing officials. And alongside the above, seek legal counsel as to what to do, what can be done, and how to proceed getting it done.

    I hope I have helped somewhat. Please respond with further questions/inquiries and I will certainly do my best to see what can be done.

  • I volunteer for Find-a-Grave. I noticed a large local cemetery had dozens of search requests, so I printed off the list and went to the cemetery office. Three people were sitting in this office when I entered. I told them I wanted to locate several graves in their cemetery, and asked whether they had any kind of transcription records or anything I could use. They immediately asked, “Are you one of those Find-a-Grave people?” When I replied, “Yes,” they looked at each other with disgust and said, “We can’t help you. We have thousands of graves, and do not have the staff to stop and look up graves every time one of you people come in here.” I was stunned. I offered to be trained on how to look up graves in their records and come in only once a month to look up names. They refused. So, I am having to walk this extremely large cemetery to look for graves. In the process, I couldn’t help noticing that MANY flat markers were either mostly grown over or completely grown over. I now go to the cemetery once a week and work on uncovering these markers. It’s a pleasant way to spend a few hours, but is so sad that no one really seems to care. Have you ever encountered an uncooperative cemetery staff before? Many of these markers, by the way, do need to be raised, but given their attitude, I’m reluctant to ask permission to raise these stones. I am now in the process of researching our state laws regarding such situations so that, if I get caught, I can tell them the state statute that allows me to do this work. Any other ideas for getting their cooperation?

    • Jay Kruizenga

      Hi Janet, I feel your frustration – and I’ve been there. Some cemetery offices just don’t get it – and they are of no help whatsoever. Even though that IS their job, they choose not to assist. Not sure what they are being paid to do – drink coffee I suppose. I applause you in your effort(s) to clean up your local cemetery. I wish more people were like you and would be willing to do what you are doing. How many hidden/lost stones would be recovered? Don’t worry too much that they don’t care. The important thing is… that YOU do!! I am going to put myself out there – and I am certainly not approving of this if your state does not allow this – but I would and I have gone above and beyond the call of duty to get these stones raised, if you get what I am saying. I am not certain how to force their cooperation. I too have encountered many lazy individuals (office staff paid to help) and then again I’ve been fortunate to find those select few individuals who bend over backwards to do everything in their power to help. Those are the people I reward with gift cards to a local coffee shop. My advice to you: do what you feel comfortable in doing. There is absolutely no harm in cleaning/clearing stones of soil and debris and I believe this is allowed in every State. Raising stones is another matter entirely. I’ve been told by at least (2) cemeteries in my county that I am free to clean/clear stones, but I must leave them where they are. Then again, if I do this…who is being served? Is the cemetery going to raise the stones? Certainly not. They are too busy. Thanks for writing me. I feel your frustration. Thank you for your service Janet!

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