Randy Rademacher

Randy Rademacher learned about divining rods, also known as witching rods, from a woman in Macon who had used wire rods to locate graves. Rademacher said people often scoff about the rods, but he believes they work.

KEARNEY — Need to find a grave?

Type in the name of the person you’re looking for, and the kiosk at Kearney Cemetery will tell you the exact location of the gravesite you seek from among the nearly 18,000.

Suppose your search is a bit more complicated. What if there’s no kiosk and time has faded the records of the cemetery where you’re searching? You could go online to a site like “findagrave.com” or you could consult a genealogist to confirm your search.

But what if you need to know — without a doubt — where a grave is located?

That’s a dilemma that occasionally confronts Lester Duncan of Ravenna. At 70, he has been hand-digging graves since age 19, and every now and then he’s told to dig where there already may be a grave.

“Usually there isn’t a problem, but last spring I had ‘fun’ up at the Litchfield Cemetery,” Duncan said.

He suspected the spot where he was told to dig inside the steep, hilly cemetery might overlap an existing grave, so he employed some old-fashioned technology — a thin metal probe — to confirm his suspicions.

“There was a grave there. I probed down and hit a vault,” Duncan said. “The lady who marks them out marked another site, and it didn’t work, either.”

On one side of the excavation spot Duncan’s probe struck something solid — a concrete vault. On the other side, the probe plunged easily into the earth — a sign that the spot also was occupied because the earth wasn’t compacted like undisturbed ground.

Lester Duncan

Lester Duncan of Ravenna has been hand-digging graves for more than 50 years, including this one at St. Mary’s Cemetery at Rockville. He uses a probe if it’s necessary to confirm whether he’s digging too close to another grave.

Duncan anticipated a tight fit and began digging, but as he went deeper, earth on one side of the new grave crumbled away to reveal the handle of a casket.

“There was a vault on one side and a casket on the other side. I might have had only a couple of inches clearance on either side,” Duncan said.

Grave traditions

Shelton native Charles Schanou of Lincoln said two aunts talked about a lonely frontier-era burial site northwest of Kearney where his great-grandmother, Kathrine Richards, was buried.

Dovehill Cemetery is near Dovehill Road and 56th Street.

“I didn’t know too much about this old cemetery,” Schanou said. “I drove up there to take a look.”

His great-grandmother’s headstone had been badly damaged, possibly by a grass mowing machine.

He and his brothers — Glenn of Omaha and Richard of Aurora — purchased a new stone to replace the damaged one.

The stone is inscribed with the dates of his great-grandmother’s birth and death, Schanou said. She was born July 9, 1854, and died Oct. 2, 1886.

He said he appreciates that Buffalo County is caring for the site and that a fence surrounds the place.

Schanou’s sentiments about his great-grandmother’s grave are common, said Ron Lieske, a retired funeral director from Kearney.

“To a lot of people, it’s important to have a place to go and pay your respects,” Lieske said.

Shift to cremation

For a variety of reasons, traditional burials are less prevalent today as more people opt for a less expensive cremation.

Steve Baye, superintendent at Kearney Cemetery, said 52 percent of recent burials involve cremation.

“The cost is a lot of it, and people are more environmental,” Baye said. Burial of cremains uses less space, he said, “And with our mobile society, you’re allowed to take the cremains anywhere.”

Traditional graves at Kearney Cemetery are 4 feet by 10 feet, but urns with cremains are buried just 2 feet apart. A new columbarium already has 208 spaces filled and appears to be a popular alternative to burying cremains, Baye said. He believes the shift to cremation could significantly extend Kearney Cemetery’s useful life.

Lieske said as the shift to cremation continues, people also are stepping back from traditional funerals. Regardless of how the funeral and burial are conducted, he said people want to honor the memory of loved ones and friends. That might take several shapes, such as a unique funeral, regularly laying flowers on a grave, or by living a good and honorable life, Lieske said.

He said he thinks about his parents when he reads a plaque on his wall: “Live your life in a way so that when you die even the funeral director will be sad.”

Finding graves

At Kearney Cemetery, buried metal surveyor rods mark out lots and ensure that graves are precisely where the charts indicate they are.

However, older cemeteries aren’t as reliably marked, said a Kearney genealogist, and occasionally it requires some sleuthing to confirm a grave location.

Elaine Batenhorst, a volunteer at Trails and Rails Museum and member of the Fort Kearny Genealogical Society, is fascinated by cemeteries and how they enrich historical knowledge. She also enjoys helping people track down family roots.

“I do genealogy, so I help people find graves. It’s kind of a morbid interest, isn’t it?” she said.

Finding a grave might require paging through fragile paper records. Visiting a cemetery can help confirm what the records say, but not always, she said.

Like Duncan, who uses metal probes to confirm where there is and isn’t a grave, Batenhorst said grave sleuths might employ other old-fashioned technology — divining rods — also known as witching rods.

Batenhorst and her husband, Mike, have experimented with witching rods.

“We’ve messed with it a little bit,” Mike said. “My son-in-law’s father did a lot of it, and also found places for wells. He swore by it when he was grave witching.”

Science doesn’t support witching rods, but that doesn’t deter some people from using them.

Crossed Rods

The witching rods Randy Rademacher made cross each other as he passes over a grave.

Earlier this week, Randy Rademacher of Kearney demonstrated witching rods at Kearney Cemetery.

Using coat hanger wire, he formed a pair of witching rods with L-shaped handles. He walked slowly with the wire pointing forward. As he passed over a grave, the wires crossed. They uncrossed as he walked beyond the grave.

“As you walk over a grave, the rods will move,” Rademacher said. “The best thing is to try it on a known grave and see how they react. You can learn how to use them that way.”

Lieske, the retired funeral director, said some people might believe that witching rods work, but he trusts probes because they help determine where the ground is softer and confirm something solid buried below.

“The conventional way of trying to locate an unmarked grave is to use a probe,” Lieske said. “Realistically, the top of the vault is probably 3 feet from the surface. You get your probe down 2½ to 3 feet, you’re going to hit the vault.”

Rademacher said a woman from Macon taught him how witching rods work. He said the woman had found graves for several people.

“I never actually went looking for a grave like that. I thought about it, but never did,” Rademacher said. “Most people scoff at it, but when you go and try it, it’s really amazing.”


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