A few years ago an elderly lady and dear friend showed Marilyn and me how to find graves by dowsing.  She convinced us there is “something to it,” for we were able to detect burial sites and usually the deceased person’s gender before we discovered confirmatory evidence from decaying round-topped limestone markers or wooden crosses near the grave sites.  Some suspected graves had no available evidence to confirm or disconfirm their location and identification.

Many farmers have employed dowsers, including our friend, to find locations to dig water wells.  She said she hasn’t been wrong yet–she is 85 years old and charges no fee.

“Doris” doesn’t want me to reveal her identity because she is finding it harder to remember as she ages but she said it is okay to explain that she has helped well drillers locate underground water sources.  Doris has also assisted historians and government officials to find old township cemeteries and sacred burial sites of Native Americans, thus enabling these sites to be preserved.

Articles I reviewed say more than a million examinations of the effectiveness of water and grave dowsing have been undertaken.  Some are scientifically rigorous investigations, while others are quasi-scientific.  Still others offer such hokey explanations as “diviners possess special powers.”

Dowsing for grave and water sites isn’t as mysterious as I had imagined.  It was fun to experience, but please don’t ask Marilyn or me to locate a site to drill a well or ancient graves.

Doris took us to a mostly unkempt country cemetery to demonstrate how to detect graves by walking slowly with dowsing rods in-hand.  She makes her dowsing rods out of metal coat-hangers without any paint on them.

Marilyn and I constructed similar L-shaped, divining rods with 8-inch long handles and 2-foot long pointers which we held loosely in both hands.  Like Doris, we pointed our divining rods straight ahead, about ten inches apart.  The rods both plunged downward when we detected a gravesite underground.   

We didn’t doubt our findings or Doris’s proclamations about burial sites because we accurately discerned every grave for which we could find a marker, such as a moldering lime headstone with still-legible lettering, sometimes toppled and hidden among the surrounding vegetation.  I felt a sense of reverence and found myself speaking in hushed tones.

Doris also has a penchant for locating sites where water wells might be dug.  She has been correct every time, she claimed.

What are explanations for water and grave dowsing?   A common explanation is that small electromagnetic charges in the minerals of bones and decayed flesh, and in underground water flows, can be detected by diviners.    

The outcomes of carefully controlled research investigations of dowsing demonstrate greater than chance determinations of where graves are located and occasional additional characteristics of the deceased persons, like their gender and approximate age.  Dowsing for productive sites to drill water wells with steady flows has been reported to yield even more positive results than grave-witching.

Skeptics generally claim that dowsing is much like fortune-telling.  They say the dowser watches carefully for barely-noticeable behaviors from observers as cues for where to locate graves or underground water sources.  Subtle cues that we don’t usually pay attention to, like miniscule head nods, may urge the diviner to more certainly pronounce the location of a grave or underground water source.

Some skeptics also say anyone can find underground water sources if we search hard enough, by paying attention to the surrounding terrain and the type and amount of shrubbery.  Water dowsing isn’t magic, it is a common sense intuition that trees grow where they can find water.

Similarly, humans have long looked for serene sites to bury their deceased loved ones, like shady hillsides.   So, dowsers have hunches where to look for buried bodies.

The studies I examined suggest that experienced dowsers are correct in their pronouncements at levels far greater than chance, thus refuting the contention that dowsing is mostly hocus-pocus.  Some dowsers can regularly and reliably locate grave and well sites, and sometimes old tile lines and water pipes.

Experienced dowsers might be a resource that agriculturalists don’t use sufficiently when farmers and ranchers need them.  While the current crop year portends most farms will have sufficient soil moisture and precipitation to produce ample yields, there have been years when precipitation has “shut off” after planting and producers need water wells for crop irrigation and their livestock.

Ole Rolvaag, the author of Giants in the Earth, wrote that many pioneering farmers of European origin in the Dakotas fell prey to hucksters who promised rain during droughts, but for pre-paid fees.  I don’t suggest employing dowsers as farming consultants but keep in mind that some experienced dowsers can be less expensive than employing archeologists and hydrologists to locate graves and well sites before undertaking a construction project or digging a well.