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Dowser uses "gift" to find Iowa's unmarked graves

Skeptics abound, but other work in cemeteries appreciated

Bob Terry of Liscomb, Iowa, uses his dowsing rods to search for unmarked graves at Oak Hill Cemetery in Belle Plaine, Iowa, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. Terry operates a cemetery mapping and restoration service in addition to utilizing his dowsing skills to find unmarked graves. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Bob Terry of Liscomb, Iowa, uses his dowsing rods to search for unmarked graves at Oak Hill Cemetery in Belle Plaine, Iowa, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. Terry operates a cemetery mapping and restoration service in addition to utilizing his dowsing skills to find unmarked graves. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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BELLE PLAINE — Cemeteries can take us places.

Just ask Bob Terry, who on a pretty, first-of-autumn afternoon was hard at work here at the picturesque cemetery on a hill that overlooks passing freight trains on the Union Pacific Railroad's main rail line.

“These are very, very special places,” said Terry, whose Marshall County company restores and repositions cemetery headstones and updates and creates maps of cemeteries so the cemetery operators know who is where.

The 72-year-old, who has worked long hours with little company in scores of Iowa cemeteries over the past 28 years, has a way of shining an intimate light on these places where his job has taken him.

“These people were somebody,” Terry said. “They made things happen in our society. Some endured the hardship of tracking across the country. And I just have to appreciate every bit of that.”

Along the way, Terry's physical and vital cemetery work also has come to feature an optional specialty that he said can deliver astonishing results no matter how many skeptics say it is little more than nonsense.

Terry is a long-practicing dowser, and he uses the “gift” and specially built metal dowsing rods of his own design and manufacture to find unmarked graves and even to determine the gender of the buried person and whether an unmarked grave is that of an infant, a small child or an adult.

Terry said the handles of his dowsing rods — which he called a “supersensitive piece of machinery” — consist of seven different crystals and seven different metals as well as a slot, which he called a “witness well,” where he can place a missing person's hair or a piece of clothing to help him find where a missing person or drowning victim might be.

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Dowsing also can involve a dowsing pendulum, and Terry said his crystal pendulum lets him communicate with those who have passed away.

“I don't know how it happened,” he said. “But as I've advanced in dowsing, many spiritual things have appeared in my life.”

His recent work in the Belle Plaine Cemetery was of this world as he was hired to reposition and restore 50 of the oldest headstones that had fallen or tilted over time.

He said he expected he will be back to map the cemetery, using a computer spreadsheet that will show who is where by the rows of graves and by the names of the deceased.

But he said he will be happy to pinpoint unmarked graves in the cemetery with his dowsing skills, as he often has done elsewhere.

In a demonstration, he held his dowsing rods, one in each hand, while walking in spots between headstones where there was only grass. In no time, the rods moved, and he said it meant he had identified an unmarked grave.

He said people were buried with the head to the west and eyes facing east, and so he walked from head to feet and back again before announcing that it was a female in the unmarked grave. Rods cross if it is a female when he moves from head to feet, he said.

Right next to the female, he had “another hit,” which he said appeared to be an infant. He stood in place, with his dowsing pendulum in hand.

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“'Can you hear me?'” he asked. “'How many months did you live? One month, two months, three months, four months?' So it was four months, and it is definitely a little female.”

The city of Robins on Cedar Rapids's north side is one city that has hired Terry to map its cemetery, work that included a map of which grave is where. On the map are marked 12 spots where Terry identified unmarked graves, each of which now has a small in-ground headstone marked “Unknown” on it.

However, Terry said he knows many are skeptical of dowsing, also known as witching.

As a result, he said he has been willing to dig into the ground at the locations of unmarked graves to prove his discoveries. Four feet of dirt above an unmarked grave has layers of topsoil and clay mixed together.

The dirt isn't in distinct layers as it would be if there were no grave, he said.

Dowsing reconsidered

Steve Story, of Hawkeye, in northeast Iowa, is president of the State Association for the Preservation of Iowa's Cemeteries, and Story said he does not subscribe to the idea that dowsers can reach the spiritual beyond.

At the same time, though, Story, 82, said he is a witcher, and he said witching is successfully used to find “disturbed earth.” He said this can mean the presence of a rectangular gravesite and can help to find gravestones that have been covered over by grass or dirt.

“Our Fayette County Pioneer Cemetery volunteer workers place the locations of unmarked graves on our final maps, simply stating that these areas have no stone, but are never to be used for any future burials,” Story said.

William Whittaker, interim research director with the Office of the State Archaeologist at the University of Iowa, authored a paper about a decade ago — “Grave Dowsing Reconsidered” — in which he concluded that he could find no evidence that dowsing or witching worked to find unmarked graves.

He said his office has oversight of graves older than 150 years, and it was in that role that he came across dowsers who were identifying unmarked graves.

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In 2005, he decided to investigate. He said he reviewed numerous cases in which a dowsing discovery was checked by a different means, and he said there was no evidence that dowsing had worked.

Whittaker said a main reason dowsing seems to work is that dowsers react physically when they notice something or think something is odd. Sensitive dowsing rods have a way of exaggerating the dowser's physical movement, he said.

For example, he said you slow down slightly and bend over slightly when you are at a place where you think there might be an unmarked grave, and he said this causes the dowsing rods to swing.

Dowsing, he said, has been used to find broken pipes, wells, power lines, buried treasures, unmarked graves and even the best place to plant pumpkins.

“So it seems that whatever people want to find, dowsing finds it for them,” Whittaker said.

He said the allure of dowsing is that it is a tool that appears to work and costs nothing for cemeteries with little or no money to use.

“I completely get why these wonderful heroes, who are doing a great job of taking care of these cemeteries, would want to use this,” Whittaker said. “ I wish we had better technologies to help them.”

Bob Terry said he is there with thick arms and still sturdy back to help any cemetery restore headstones. He also has the latest computer spreadsheet software to identify just where the marked graves are in a cemetery.

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If you want a map that includes blue dots where his dowsing sticks have found unmarked graves, you can have that, too.

“There are gifted piano players and gifted football players,” Terry said. “I'm a gifted dowser. I didn't ask anybody for it. I didn't read any books. It just comes.

“Some say it's the devil's work. Maybe for you it is. But for me, it's the work for mankind.”

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