Detecting Unmarked Graves

In many areas, cemeteries and graveyards have become full. Coupled with inaccurate records for the older sections of graveyards and the possibility of missing headstones. There is sometimes a need for a survey to be performed, to verify the presence of unmarked graves.

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Using GPR to detect unmarked graves

Ground Penetrating Radar works by transmitting a signal into the ground and listening for reflections, which are displayed on a computer screen. Reflections are caused when the GPR signal encounters change in the electromagnetic properties of the material it is travelling through (such as the change from soil to an unmarked grave).

When a hole is dug, it creates a scar in the ground which can be detected by GPR for centuries (or sometimes even thousands of years). In addition, the presence of a coffin or urn adds further reflective material.

The actual results and visibility of an unmarked grave will depend on the ground conditions and the age of the grave, as well as the experience of the operator, so it is not infallible, but GPR is a useful and reliable tool for detecting unmarked graves.

Examples of GPR being used to detect unmarked graves

Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) can be used to detect and map the locations of buried remains and unmarked graves. In the two examples below, GPR was used both to detect graves and to verify with a reasonable degree of confidence that no graves are present.

GPR survey at Beeston Cemetery, Nottingham, to detect unmarked graves

In this example, we were asked to survey part of a cemetery at Beeston, in Nottingham, to assess empty spaces between marked graves and determine if they contained remains in unmarked graves, or if the ground was clear. The ground in this section of the cemetery was very hard and difficult to dig and, being home to graves over 100 years old, it was believed that those areas had been left in favour of easier digging (using hand tools) elsewhere. In addition, with the use of modern breakers it is possible to dig smaller graves with more vertical sides, leading to the possibility that empty spaces between the older graves could be utilised.

A GPR survey was conducted over the area of interest, we were able to determine that some areas were indeed clear, whilst others had been used but were unmarked. We issued a drawing showing the respective graves on a plan with a traffic light system: green for clear space, amber for uncertain or too close to another grave, and red for unmarked graves. Gravesites with accurate records were left unmarked. Using this information many free spaces became available to increase the service life of the cemetery.

GPR Survey at St James Church Graveyard, Oldham

On another survey at a church in Oldham, we were asked to verify if there were any unmarked graves situated along the outer boundary, before work could commence to pin and rebuild a subsiding wall. A row of gravestones along the boundary gave the impression that they could be present.

Using GPR we scanned the area and verified that there was no evidence of graves along the boundary, we proposed that the stones must had been moved after a bombing event in the war: it was well known that the church had suffered significant damage to its grounds and the orientation of the headstones was incorrect for Christian burials. Works to the perimeter wall were completed.

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