By Joe Bierce
Suzzie Strainer, secretary of the Boone County Genealogy Society Board, is licensed by DNR (The Indiana Department of Natural Resources) to probe in cemetery sites.
Probing is done with a steel rod pushed into the ground. The process is tightly controlled state by state because damage can be done to a coffin or a buried gravestone. The individual who is probing needs to be aware.
In Indiana the DNR controls by a license, just who can use the probing method.
To get the license one must apply to DNR and attend a workshop as outlined below.
“Workshop I is a two-day workshop offered every spring. Topics include Indiana cemetery laws, stone types, symbolism, stone cleaning, tablet straightening, probing instructions, and cemetery maintenance. This workshop is a combination of classroom lectures, in-the-field and hands-on work. Attendance to both days of the workshop is required to apply for a probing license.
The rod is 6-foot-long with a blunt end and a T-shaped handle. It can be purchased commercially or be made by the user. The soil is probed in various spots looking for the resistance one would expect from a coffin or vault, a headstone or base or an area of less compact soil resulting from the presence of a grave shaft.”
And while there are multiple reasons for one to probe at a gravesite, a primary reason is to verify that this is indeed the location of a grave.
This probing is not done willy-nilly. It is usually carried out based upon previously determined information. Either there is a record of the exact location or the suspicion is that a grave exists as determined by dowsing.
Since dowsing can yield the presumed location of the head of a body, one can assume that just beyond the head would be the remains of a buried base of a headstone or the headstone itself. In either case they would be normally located just a few inches under the soil. Indiana DNR regulations only permit probing to 18 inches.
This technique of probing again is proscribed:
First, move to the location where you might expect a stone to be. Push the probe into the ground stop at 18 inches. If you hit nothing move several inches to either side and continue to probe and move laterally until you either hit an object or find nothing. It could be that there is no marker or that any coffin has long since decayed and collapsed.
If you first find resistance it may be what you’re looking for and it may be a rock. If there’s a rock, it is liable to be small so move your probe laterally two or 3 inches and probe again. If you hit something solid again it may not be a rock. If you continue to get this response over a period of what might be the base of a headstone is time to verify what is underground. Since you know how deep you have probed you know how deep you will have to dig.
If you have further probed the presumed outlines of a headstone base which could be 12 to 18 inches wide and 2 to 4 feet long, you have defined the depth and area that you’ll have to uncover and will be able to verify the existence of a base or the existence of a headstone itself.
When in the process of using any method to determine old historical grave sites verification of the process is always in order.By combining several processes one can answer many different questions.
There are drawbacks to any process. All are imprecise and have the potential for disturbing the grave site. One always wants to use the least invasive process to accomplish the desired goal.
This continuing series on cemetery restoration will examine the process of retrieving buried headstones, repairing those that have been broken, vandalized or just fallen off the base from ground movement.
We will also follow one family and their efforts at restoring a family grave site that led to restoring the entire cemetery.
Pictured Above: Suzzie Strainer probes a grave site. (Photo by Joe Bierce)