Unmarked graves can be found reliably!

Don't you just hate it when your timber stakes are ripped out of the ground and you no longer know where that grave was located?
Don’t you just hate it when your timber stakes are ripped out of the ground and you no longer know where that grave was located?

Using various geophysical methods, Hunter Geophysics is capable of remotely detecting lost or unmarked graves. Most of the time, we perform searches using ground-penetrating radar.

Our services are used in cemeteries to prevent old, forgotten graves from being accidentally exhumed when new graves are being dug.

 

The process

unmarkedGraveDetectionSteps

  1. Call Dave the grave Hunter for a quote on 0488 501 261 or 03 9913 2259 (or you may email him if you would like). Please have the following information ready:
    1. How large is the area you want searched (please provide the length and width of the area, in metres).
    2. What is on the ground surface? e.g. long grass, lawn grass, concrete, gravel, is it a road surface, etc.
    3. Are there any trees or plants within the search area?
    4. Are there any headstones or any other obstacle within the search area?
    5. Please email David photographs of the area, clearly showing the location of any obstacles in the area you would like searched.
  2. David will provide you with a written quotation. If you are in Victoria, you may then apply for funding for the project from the Department of Health (we will even fill in the grant application form for you if you wish).
  3. Once the project is approved by the client, we obtain all necessary permits (this is particularly relevant for Victorian cemeteries), and then David will book in a date that suits the cemetery for the search to be performed.
  4. The cemetery trust will need to prepare the search area so that it is suitable for the equipment we use. This usually entails mowing the grass and removing any rubbish from the area; more details about this can be found on the last two pages of this template cemetery quote.
  5. The on-site work is performed. We can search an area of dimensions up to 50 metres by 50 metres in a day, assuming there are no obstacles. Obstacles such as trees, shrubs, and headstones will slow down the search speed.
      1. Hunter Geophysics undertaking a GPR survey in a cemetery in Canberra.
        Hunter Geophysics undertaking a GPR survey in a cemetery in Canberra. The equipment is mounted on a push-cart and makes no noise at all.
  6. After the on-site work is done, we return to our office in Melbourne and examine all the data we collected, and write up a report detailing our findings. This process can take several weeks to several months, depending on the size of the search area. You can read some example reports we’ve written for past clients here.
      1. This map shows the location of unmarked graves (red blobs) in a cemetery.
        This map shows the location of unmarked graves (red blobs) in a cemetery.
  7. After we deliver our final report to you, we can provide you with a quotation to actually mark-out the graves on the ground. The graves are marked out with spray paint and vinyl flooring. This temporary measure allows the cemetery to create permanent markers for the graves (most cemeteries opt to place concrete blocks on the graves).
      1. We spray-paint the location of each grave we find on the ground. This allows cemetery trusts to create more permanent markers, such as concrete slabs.
        We spray-paint the location of each grave we find on the ground. This allows cemetery trusts to create more permanent markers, such as concrete slabs.
  8. For cemeteries in Victoria, we are required under Section 131 and Section 132 of the Heritage Act 1995 to research the history of the cemetery and report our findings to Heritage Victoria. These rules apply to anyone searching for unmarked graves anywhere in Victoria (although we are aware that many of our competitors do not do this). This report is due for submission to Heritage Victoria within twelve months from the completion of all on-site work, and is done in the months after the survey itself. This report is not usually provided to the client, but will be made available upon request at no extra cost.

It is important to note that we do not mark-out the location of unmarked graves until step 7 in the above list. 

 

You can read some example reports we’ve written for past clients here.

Please call Dave the grave Hunter for a quote on 0488 501 261 or 03 9913 2259 (or you may email him if you prefer).

 

Some frequently asked questions:

  • “How does the technology work?”

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) maps any disturbances in the natural layering in the ground. For example, if a hole has been dug for a burial, that will have disturbed the natural layering of the soil, and this disturbance can be detected. This is how we find unmarked graves.

The GPR is mounted on a cart that we push around by hand. It makes no noise and does no damage to the ground surface at all. GPR signals are very narrow, so we can only find out what is buried underneath where we push the GPR. This means that to cover a large area, we have to walk up and back many times until we completely cover the area. To do this, we cover the search area with perfectly-straight, perfectly-parallel string lines that are 25cm apart. We then push the GPR along those string lines to ensure we achieve complete coverage of the area.

More details on the science behind GPR can be found here.

This photo shows the string-lines that are required to guide GPR operators. They ensure that perfect coverage of a search area is achieved.
  • “What does it cost?”

Ultimately, this comes down to how large is the area you need searched for unmarked graves, and how many obstacles there are in the area.

Generally, we can search a single area of dimensions not exceeding 50m x 50m in a day, assuming it does not have any obstacles in it, and is mowed so the grass is short. We can also cover several smaller areas in a day, depending on their sizes. However, the areas must be rectangular, and must not have any obstacles in them (otherwise, we can’t keep our string-lines straight).

If you need us to search an area that has a few headstones or trees in it, we can prepare several smaller rectangle areas around the obstacles. Setting up each rectangular area takes time, and so the actual area covered in a day will be less (in comparison to searching one large area with no obstacles).

If you can provide us with the dimensions of the areas to be searched (without any obstacles in them), then we can quickly calculate how long it will take and – therefore – the price. If you can’t provide these dimensions, though, we can visit the cemetery and perform an on-site assessment. The on-site assessment involves using survey equipment to map the areas you need searched, along with any obstacles that may be in the area. We can then draw rectangular areas on the map and determine the price for the search. An on-site assessment costs roughly $600-$900 for cemeteries within Victoria, depending on how far away the cemetery is from Melbourne (e.g. a cemetery in Mildura will necessitate two nights in a motel, and will cost more than a cemetery within Melbourne). On-site assessments outside of Victoria are usually too expensive (in which case, we will direct you how to provide the information we need via e.g. email or phone call).

How we determine the price of a search for unmarked graves is as follows: for the first day we are on-site, we charge $5,700, including GST; for any additional days of on-site work, we charge $2,800, including GST. For cemeteries within Victoria, we charge an additional $1,200 including GST to cover the costs of the mandatory Heritage Victoria reporting (explained above). For cemeteries outside of Victoria, we may also charge an additional fee to cover our travel and accommodation costs.

These figures are fully-inclusive. We don’t charge anything in addition to what is written above in order to conduct a search for unmarked graves. All the costs of preparing for the search, conducting the search, and all the report-writing work required, is included in these figures. (We do, though, charge an additional fee to mark out the graves that we find on the ground, but this is under a separate contract).

An example – for a cemetery within Victoria, with a 50m x 50m area and a 20m x 30m area: this would take two days of on-site work and would cost a total of $9,700 (Day 1 $5700 + Day 2 $2800 + Heritage Victoria reporting costs $1200).

  • “Will the Department of Health really fund grant applications that are that costly?”

In short, yes. The Department of Health have funded the majority of our searches for unmarked graves, with projects varying in price from $6,500 to $19,000. We generally advise keeping the grant application to around $10,000, though, to minimise the risk of not receiving funding (as the available funds are competed for by all cemeteries that apply). Cemeteries are able to apply for further funding (e.g. to search other areas within the cemetery) at a later date – it is not necessary to search an entire cemetery within the one grant application.

  • “Can we scan in between headstones?”

Yes. We have developed a technique that allows us to search individual burial plots and check for unmarked graves. This technique is relatively new (we developed it in 2014) but has been successful where applied.

  • “Can you see how many bodies are buried within one burial plot?”

GPR does not (usually) directly detect bodies. Instead, it is detecting the area of soil disturbance. We note that the soil may be disturbed in an area of roughly 7ft x 3ft, extending from the ground surface to a metre or more deep, and then assume that the disturbance was caused by digging a grave. It is not normally possible to see individual bodies or coffins within burial plots.

  • “I work for a very small cemetery in the middle of nowhere in Victoria. Am I unlikely to get government funding?”

The grants are competitive and the funding available is limited, meaning that if another cemetery has a more urgent requirement (e.g. if they need funding to repair a building that looks like it may collapse soon), then they will be given priority. However, almost all of the cemeteries we have worked for in the past have been very small and very remote, and all received government funding. What is important is that cemetery trusts recognise that their first, second, third, etc. grant applications may be rejected, but their fourth grant application may be approved simply because the timing was right (e.g. there might not have been as many cemeteries applying for funding at that time). Persistence is key.

  • “The Department of Health website says we can’t apply for funding for another year or so”.

That’s true; they do say that on their forms. In reality, though, if the Department of Health don’t receive many funding requests from cemeteries, they will consider providing funding to cemeteries who have already received funding recently. Many of our clients today have received grants three or four funding rounds in a row (there are two funding rounds per year) simply because there weren’t many other cemeteries requesting funding.

Cemetery trusts have nothing to lose by submitting a grant application. We do the paperwork for you – all you need to do is get Trustees to sign the form and then post it to the Department of Health.

  • “Your competitor says you don’t need to have the string lines 25cm apart, you can halve the workload (and cost) by having them 50cm apart instead.”

Putting it bluntly, they’re horribly wrong. Here is an example of GPR data we collected from a cemetery near Ballarat in 2015:

 

A comparison of GPR data collected with string-lines (survey lines) 25cm apart (as used by Hunter Geophysics) and 50cm apart (as used by one of our competitors).

The first map shows a number of red or yellow blobs. These are mostly unmarked graves (the smallest yellow blobs are probably infant burials). This map was created using GPR data taken along lines 25cm apart (which is our standard practice).

The second map was created by deleting every second line in the computer software (which mimics the effect of collecting GPR data along lines that are 50cm apart). You can clearly see there is a lot of detail missing from the 50cm-line-spacing map. This means that many unmarked graves could be completely missed. This is why we use a 25cm line spacing. Using a 50cm line spacing for detecting unmarked graves is – in our opinion – negligent.

  • “Can’t we just use a grader/excavator and look for changes in soil colours or textures?”
  1. Different soils will behave differently over time (and, therefore, may not have a noticeably-different soil colour or texture where a grave may be. You may completely miss a grave using this method.
  2. An excavator or a grader will rejuvenate the top-soil and will encourage the growth of undesirable weeds, and will also destroy whatever lawn was there prior to excavation.
  3. An excavator can’t cover the large areas that GPR can, and it costs more.
  4. An excavator can’t reach in tight spaces such as in-between headstones, whereas GPR can.
  • “Can’t we just use a metal probe to see if we can tap on the coffin lid?”
  1. You’d have to have a fairly long metal probe (about 2m).
  2. Good luck getting that into compacted soil (clays and silts) or gravel soils.
  3. Good luck getting it out of the soil when you’re done.
  4. You’re going to be sticking that thing in the ground thousands of times in order to cover a search area. Even doing it once will be a massive undertaking.
  5. The assumption that the coffin lid will still be intact (after potentially hundreds of years) is usually wrong.
  6. You may unknowingly hit a buried rock instead of a coffin lid. You would have no way of knowing if what you hit was a grave or a rock.