New tech finds old graves
- Published: October 8, 2015
At a Miami Township Board of Trustees meeting a few weeks ago, Trustee Chris Mucher and Cemetery Sexton/Township Road employee Dan Gochenouer discussed recent events in the Glen Forest Cemetery that caught this writer off guard but are apparently business as usual in the running of an historical cemetery. Ground penetrating radar recently discovered the remains of 35 unknown people on cemetery grounds. The finding doesn’t suggest some unspeakable tragedy but rather offers insight into the history of the cemetery and the town. The interred are as of yet identified, but perusal of cemetery records and investigation into the history of the cemetery provides some context to who they may be.
The saga began when the Township decided to turn some of its unused cemetery land into new burial sites. The cemetery had space for approximately 300 new plots scattered throughout the property that had no record of owners alive or buried. The Township got the go-ahead from the appropriate county agencies and started preparations to make the plots for sale.
Part of the preparation involved updating the cemetery’s records. Mucher squared extant records with those in dusty old notebooks that came with the cemetery when the Township assumed stewardship in 2013. Mucher digitized the records, entering a carpal tunnel-inducing 7,000 pieces of data into “professional cemetery software.” The updated records would prove helpful when the discovery was made.
While these steps were under way, Mucher attended a cemetery maintenance seminar. He came across the booth of a company called GPRS that offers ground penetrating radar services, a technology typically used to find buried utilities or reinforcements in concrete. The company was at the seminar because radar has a similar application in cemeteries — to search for unknown underground items before that ground is used. Mucher said the technology was much more affordable than he realized, and he set up an appointment with Dayton GPRS representative Nate Kollar.
Kollar scanned the areas in Glen Forest designated for new plots. The radar and radio he uses give the operator real-time results while searching, penetrating to a depth of around 10 feet. The radar system is able to detect solid masses but also locates “void cavities” created by burial containers that have disintegrated over time. Mucher likened the use of the GPRS apparatus to “pushing a baby carriage,” an incongruous image for a cemetery.
Mucher and Gouchenour were surprised at how quickly and effortlessly the radar process was completed. The entire cemetery was “scanned in half a day.” The results were equally surprising — the radar system picked up evidence of 35 unrecorded bodies buried all across the cemetery, 25 of which were in areas earmarked for future use. The occupied plots were promptly removed from the list of available sites and the interred were left to continue resting in peace. The rest of the new sites are to be made available for sale.
“The discovery brings peace of mind,” said Mucher. “We could have sold a gravesite and found someone there when we went to dig for the new owner.”
But Kollar said that in his professional experience, it’s not uncommon to make these sorts of discoveries, especially in older cemeteries with gaps in the record keeping.
The detection of remains begs one to ask who these people might be, as they were found where records said there shouldn’t be any burials. It turns out there are a few centuries of possibility.
Robin Heise of the Yellow Springs Historical Society and the Greene County Archives said that use of the cemetery goes back to 1823. Legend has it that this was the year of Glen Forest Cemetery’s first burial, when a young girl passing through the area with her family via stagecoach died and was buried under a tree on the grounds. The area was to be used “exclusively for mortuary purposes” starting in 1873, according to the deed accompanying the sale of the cemetery to the Village.
Heise got out a map of the cemetery from 1922 to illustrate why there may be more graves than are accounted for. Cemeteries typically have an area designated for the destitute, she said, and it’s possible that a lot of the newly discovered remains belong to people who were too poor to have a headstone (or even proper records). However, the bodies were found in scattered locations around the cemetery and not in the low-lying area alongside Cemetery Street, an area that Heise explained would have been set aside for paupers’ graves due to its propensity for flooding.
Either way, maps are only as good as the records they are based on, Heise said. She pointed out an area in the northwest side of the cemetery that the 1922 map has delineated as “Old Graves,” with no further explanation given as to what or who these old graves belong to. Evidently records were scarce even 100 years ago.
But it’s not surprising that records are often incomplete in old cemeteries such as Glen Forest, Heise said. The physical records may have been lost or destroyed over time. Caretakers would often keep a cemetery’s ledger at home, she said, and when the caretakers died, nobody ascribed any importance to the ledgers and likely threw them out.
However, there may yet be some clues as to whose remains are in the cemetery. In his poring over the records, Mucher also found records of 400 burials complete with names and other identifying information, but no indication of where the people were actually buried. Part of the plan is to put the data he uncovered online so people can research burials themselves, which may eventually match the records with the anonymous gravesites. Mucher said the upside to this mystery is that, as of six months ago, nobody even knew these people existed.
Kollar reflected on the inherent peace of a cemetery when he was scanning Glen Forest. The solitude of the work and the quiet of his environs encourage meditation on the people at rest there. Their presence spans decades, if not centuries, of village history. Their lives were once recorded in dusty ledgers and the recent re-discovery reminds us of their time on earth. Thinking about their experiences preserves their memory, even if their names are forgotten.
“They’re not alive again, but they are back among the recorded people,” Mucher said.