It sounds like someone is pulling your leg:
“Straighten two coat hangers, walk over an area where you believe a body is buried, and you will not only find the body but you can determine gender and approximate age,” the prankster will say.
But it really works.
Dowsing for water or metal – and even bodies – has been practiced for thousands of years. Fans of old TV Westerns may remember homesteaders using a forked stick to dowse, the point of the divining rod dipping down when over water. These days, genealogists use it to find lost graveyards of ancestors or gravesites where markers have disappeared or eroded, and are even able to determine the gender of the body.
The basic technique is to hold a metal rod in each hand. Hold the rods parallel to each other and parallel to the ground. Walk slowly and as soon as you get to where something is buried in the ground, the rods will cross. They will uncross as soon as you get away from the body.
Carol Brooks trying her hand at grave dowsing. The rods crossed in a regular grid pattern at the cemetery at the old meeting house at the High Point City Lake Park. Most of the grave markers there have eroded or been vandalized over the years.
The rods will pick up something buried in the ground. It may be electrical wire, it may be a water line, it may be a septic tank, or it may be an underground stream. It’s telling you there’s something there. Now it's up to you to figure out if it is a human grave.
You might pick up animal bodies as well as water and metal, but position and locality can help determine a human burial. Humans are usually buried on their back with the head to the west and feet to the east (in the manner common in the U.S.). Graves are usually two to three feet apart and laid out in an orderly manner. However, that rule is not followed 100 percent of the time. For example, a municipal cemetery might not be laid out east to west.
There are two techniques with the rods to determine the gender of a body.
The first method often gives a false reading but is the most dramatic to watch. Standing over a grave, hold one of the rods loosely over your head, parallel to the ground. The rod will swing around and eventually point to the feet of a male or the head of a female.
Dowsers often consider the second method foolproof. Balance the handle of one of the rods on your forefinger while standing over a grave. The rod will begin circling clockwise for a male and counterclockwise for a female. This technique proved to be 95 percent accurate on graves that were later exhumed.
Holding a rod on the end of your index finger over a grave is considered a fool-proof method to determine gender. The rod will rotate clockwise for a male and counterclockwise for a female.
Relative age is determined by walking the length of a grave. The rods will stay crossed while over the body, obviously longer for an adult than for a child. Allow one to two steps for an infant, two to three for a toddler, three to four for a child, six for an adult, and seven for a tall adult.
More than one person could be buried in the same grave and the rods might indicate this. Sometimes a mother is buried holding a child.
Coat hangers are one type of metal that dowsers can use but any type of metal will work. Most are about three feet long with a short handle on one end. In order for the rod to move easily, cut a drinking straw in half and insert the handle of the wire rod.
Experts in grave dowsing suggest testing the technique at a cemetery where there are marked graves before venturing out into the woods or fields. Telltale signs that graves are there are depressions in the ground, or mounds, or even wild periwinkle growing over a grave.
Although dowsing for graves is a controversial technique, it does appear to work in most cases. Dowsing works through caskets, vaults, even asphalt and concrete. Unfortunately it is not able to produce the name of the person buried in the grave.
So, why does grave dowsing work? There are many theories but nothing has been absolutely proven. Many believe the rods react to magnetic north, picking up a disturbance in the earth’s magnetic field. However, stainless steel rods are not magnetic so that theory should not hold true. Another popular theory is dubbed “ideomotor action,” basically meaning that if one expects to find a body, you will unconsciously do something that will produce the result. You might lean forward, causing the rods to tilt downward and cross, even if there is no burial.
Most dowsers don’t know why the rods work, or even care. The technique just works.
Several years ago, a fellow skeptic friend and I decided to try out the dowsing rods I made from straightened coat hangers. We first went to Deep River Friends Cemetery. We walked among the graves and the rods crossed over known burials. I tried to not look at the grave markers so I would not be influenced as to the sex. Every reading was correct. The length of the body of a child’s grave also rang true. Part of this cemetery is known to have many unmarked graves, several of which were located during the test.
Next, we went to the graveyard at the old Meeting House at the High Point City Lake Park. Most of the markers in the cemetery are gone due to vandalism or age, so it was a good place to run the test. Although the entire graveyard was not checked, many graves were found, laid out in an orderly fashion west to east.
Back at my office in Jamestown, I found several indications of burials in the backyard as well as through the floor and under the office itself. This would not be odd, considering it’s believed a doctor practiced in a house next door, since demolished, and possibly buried deceased patients in the lot beside his office.
Were these really human remains? Exhumation may be the only way to find out.
Carol Brooks is a lifetime resident of High Point and a lover of the area’s history. She is a member of the High Point Historical Society and on the board of directors of the Historic Jamestown Society. Carol serves as historian and has also co-authored the latest history of the First Baptist Church in High Point, which celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2025. After several years of full-time reporting and writing, she is currently a freelance writer for the Jamestown News, where she was the former editor. Carol provided the photographs for this blog.