A group of people stood among the gravestones in Red Apple Cemetery on Tuesday watching a man hold two L-shaped metal wire rods over the sites of buried bodies.
A mixture of the curious and the interested, the people were attending a meeting of the Boaz Chapter of the NorthEast Alabama Genealogical Society (NEAGS).
The man holding the slender rods was Rodentown resident Wayne Gregg in the midst of a demonstration on the art of grave dowsing.
Gregg used the rods to effectively identify the gender, positioning and even the height of bodies buried in the cemetery as he showed how grave dowsing is a useful tool in the study of family lineages, also called genealogy.
The rods started out parallel to each other, one in each of Gregg’s hands. As Gregg slowly approached a gravesite, the rods crossed in front of him. They uncrossed when he stepped away from the grave.
To determine the gender, Gregg used one rod, staying as close to the center of the grave as possible. The rod would point to the foot of a man or the head of a woman, apparently attracted to the different polarization of carbon in the two genders.
The experiment works on a living person who is lying down as well.
More than 40 people attended Tuesday’s meeting at Boaz Public Library before driving over to Red Apple Cemetery, which is across from Red Apple Baptist Church on Summerville Road, just west of Boaz.
Boaz Public Library Director Lynn Burgess expected a high level of interest in grave dowsing.
“It is the unknown that interests people,” she said.
Gregg said his interest in dowsing started in 1963 when he worked for a telephone company.
“The old cable guys knew how to locate cable using dowsing rods,” said Gregg, the recording secretary for NEAGS. “What I hope to do is kindle an interest in genealogy and the use of grave dowsing in genealogy.”
Grave dowsing has a practical use in genealogy, Gregg said, and can be helpful in identifying or locating unmarked graves or sorting out questions about where relatives are buried.
Gregg said most people in the United States are buried in a Christian manner, meaning the bodies are laid on the back with the head pointing west and the feet pointing east. The belief is when the body rises up, it is facing east for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Gregg said about 70 percent of people can effectively use the metal wire rods for grave dowsing. In fact, a few people Tuesday appeared to successfully dowse graves when using the rods for the first time.
Gregg said less than 4 percent are adept at dowsing with forked sticks.
Grave dowsing can be learned but requires practice to hone the skill, he said.
Boaz Mayor Tim Walker attended the meeting with his son Zeb, and he said they successfully experimented with the rods on each other when they returned home. The mayor said the experience was almost spiritual to him.
“One lady walked up to me and said, ‘I can see you have that dowsing grin.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘you were a skeptic and now you’re a believer,’” Walker said.
Denise Willis, a teacher at Boaz High School, said the demonstration fed her already burgeoning interest in genealogy.
“I’ll share all this with my kids tomorrow,” Willis said. “I didn’t know anything about grave dowsing. I only heard about water dowsing before. So I was just very curious as to what this was all about and could somebody actually do this. I did a little research on the Internet, and the more I read, the more it piqued my curiosity. I had to absolutely come out and see this actually work in somebody’s hands out in the field.”
Larry Cochran, a retired teacher of chemistry and physics from Boaz High School, knows about science. His conclusion: the science works.
“The organization of molecules and the polarization of carbon molecules … it makes sense,” he said. “And I’ve learned something here about the difference in male and female remains and the carbon deposits. It’s been educational and fun.”
Cochran, a member of NEAGS, is fairly new to genealogy.
“I just got interested in genealogy the last couple of years,” he said. “It is fantastic. I wish I hadn’t waited till I got so old to learn about my forebears, but when mortality closes in, I guess that’s when we start thinking about those who have gone before.”
The next meeting of the Boaz Chapter of NEAGS is Oct. 9 at 6:30 p.m. in the Mastin Conference Center at Boaz Public Library. Meetings are open to the public. Membership in the group is $20 per year.