Dowsing in genealogy

The art of corpse witching

Last week I put this post aside as being a bit too niche, but then Rebecca posted this great takedown of dowsing and all of a sudden my topic is downright topical.

Did you skim past the subtitle and want to guess how dowsing is used in genealogy? Personally, I would have guessed pendulum dowsing to test hypotheses. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people using that. When researching one’s ancestors, everyone will get to a point where things either completely dead end, which is frustrating, or where they go fuzzy, which is even more frustrating. I see people grasping at other types of straws all the time, so why not ask the pendulum to tell you yes or no?

But while that seems plausible, I haven’t actually seen any evidence of it, while I have seen evidence for corpse witching. Or “grave dowsing” as everyone seems to call it, but come on, if searching for water is water witching, why aren’t people calling it corpse witching? What do you mean ‘“It’s way more metal!” isn’t the primary driver for most peoples’ word choice decisions’? Okay, I’ll stick with “dowsing for graves” then, fine!

Since my ancestors are all from Europe and mainly Norway, where people have been buried almost exclusively in cemeteries for centuries, and where most graves are reused and stones removed after a generation or three, grave dowsing only came on my radar after I started following some genealogy groups on Facebook with a predominantly US membership.

Modern day Americans expect graves to stick around almost no matter what, but they also sometimes have ancestors who lived far from a cemetery and were buried “on the farm”, or ancestors who were shipped to a different state for burial or ancestors whose burial records have errors (the latter happens in the rest of the world too of course), and some American genealogists are really into solving the resulting puzzles. They want to find out exactly where their ancestors were buried and, if there’s no remaining marker, have one placed there. And sometimes that really isn’t possible to achieve by normal means.

Enter the grave dowser.

This post was inspired first by someone posting about their quest to find their grandfather’s burial. They had a suspected place, a family plot that included a marker just with the surname, but

The Town of [redacted] insists there is no one buried there. I dowsed the grave and there is.

So yeah …

In other threads I’ve seen people comment they learned this from an older relative, as well as people having had courses in this through their local history/genealogy groups. And I’m sure that, as with water dowsing, there are differences from dowser to dowser, but the first result I got when I started my research (for “started my research” read “put ‘grave dowsing’ into DuckDuckGo”) was Dowsing for Unmarked Graves, posted on the website for the Jay Historical Society in Florida. And since grave dowsing is bullshit, that is as good a source as any.

The author, Ms. Nelson, mentions both the old Y-shaped dowsing rods and pendulums in her introduction, but her methods are all about the L-shaped metal rod.

My childhood friend [name redacted] and I both use two metal coat hangers. We cut the coat hangers at […]

I removed the name of Ms. Nelson’s friend. No reason why she should be singled out as a credulous grave dowser.

Ms. Nelson describes how to tell the effects of natural water, water pipes and dead animals from a human burial, but I’m not going to bore you with those bits. I am however going to mention that she also believes you can tell the gender of a buried body, and she includes one error prone and one foolproof method for this.

The foolproof method is as follows:

While you are standing in the center of the suspected gravesite, balance the handle of one of the rods on your index finger, hold the rod straight down. The rod will begin making a circular motion. The rod will then rotate counterclockwise for the male, and rotate clockwise for a female.

Apparently this is only for Florida though, as the writer has discussed this with other dowsers and found geographical differences, so she suggests a novice make many practice runs in a marked cemetery in the region they are searching. She makes no mention of doing some blinded tests after your practice, unfortunately.

She is adamant it works though:

As a personal testimonial, I can say with 100% confidence if you are a believer, and if you are careful, and follow my directions and methods as outlined in this article, you, too, might succeed at Dowsing for Graves.

So 100% confidence it might work, if you are a careful believer who follows the instructions. And how can you doubt someone who has a source list at the end? I mean, the hyperlinks have not survived transformation to PDF, so you have to Google the names and titles, but the one I tried, Grave Dowsing, found on the pages for the Canadian Society of Dowsers, did exist.

Strangely enough this author is less certain that everyone can learn this method:

For some, this method will not work at all, but I have found that it works for at least 90% of the people that I have taught this method to.

But if you were worried this might be witchcraft, she has you covered:

Some people have associated dowsing with witchcraft, however, I do not believe that 90% of the population are practicing witches which means that there has to be a scientific explanation and requires no “Special Powers” by the person who is performing the dowsing.

And in a way she is correct. Her observation of a 90% success rate is evidence it’s not a question of special powers, and it does mean there is a scientific explanation. It’s just that the explanation is the ideomotor effect and dowsing being absolute BS.

I’m not going to go through more of the sources, though I’m sure there are further nuggets of entertainment in them. I’ll just mention that of the seven sources listed one is, “Personal work that has been performed by [Ms. Nelson and her friend]” , one is the World Book encyclopedia, and one is An Encyclopedia of Claims/James Randi. Presumably the online version, and currently that has an error that specifically has made the D-section blank, but I doubt it had anything positive to say about dowsing when it was up and running. (Unfortunately Water witching just says See Dowsing.) Still, kudos to Ms. Nelson for including a source list I guess.

What’s the harm in all of this? It’s not like a lot of people get scammed by grave dowsers or are much harmed even if they are. But belief in grave dowsing does not exist in a vacuum. It’s tied to belief in water dowsing and a lack of understanding of scientific evaluation of results, and those can indeed cause a lot of harm.


Bjørnar used to be a CompSci-major high school teacher in Norway, but has now followed his American wife's career to Boston, Cincinnati and finally Chapel Hill. When not writing for Skepchick he gives his actual-scientist wife programming advice, works as a tutor, updates rusty programming skills and tries to decide what to be when he grows up.

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