Metal Detecting in Cemeteries and Crash Sites: Is It Okay?

Recently, I was taken to task on Facebook for expressing that I sometimes hunt graveyards, and think it’s fine to do so. I wrote as much in my book, and have expected to be given some grief about it, but so far the only place I’ve found that attitude is online. Many commenters were aghast, expressing their outrage at the immorality or at least unethical-ness of the practice. Sorry, but I couldn’t disagree more, unless you’re hunting right on top of or close to the grave plots themselves, or your locale has laws against it.

ChurchyardI was frankly taken aback that people who are as into history as most detectorists are don’t seem to realize that spending leisure time in a cemetery is as old as people themselves. In the Old Country, having picnics, weddings and other ceremonies in graveyards is not only okay, it’s encouraged in many cultures as a way to commune with loved ones who have passed. In others, such as several South American countries, actual revelry takes place there, as a sign of respect for and inclusion of the dead in the lives of those they loved who still go on. I find it difficult to believe that some serious (though perhaps inadvertent) actual grave-stomping doesn’t go on during these events, but no one seems to mind. And detectorists aren’t doing any such thing, unless they grave-robbing to begin with, and that’s just plain criminal from the word “go.” 

The fact is, back in the day when not everyone had the means to own their own land, places to get a change of scenery without having to drive a wagon miles from home were few and far between. But nearly everyone could manage get to the town graveyard, even if they had to walk. So, many families made a day of it, going to visit and pay respect to deceased loved ones, followed by a picnic on the grass alongside, which was one of the few public greens that was regularly mowed. While the grownups talked, ate and laughed, items fell from their pockets. Children played with each other there, and dropped things. And I’m sure the same shedding of items goes on today.

Victorian Cemetery PicnicIn Victorian times, this practice actually became something of a fad, and in homage to that, many steampunk cosplay groups today routinely hold such events in cemeteries (though they do tend to choose the more historic-looking ones, for obvious reasons).

So, as detectorists and amateur historians, consider that outside of the gravesites proper, cemeteries have a long history as legitimate, even somewhat fond, public gathering places. If you’re spooked by these spots, then by all means, stay away. But unless it’s illegal in one’s area, don’t vilify those of us who hunt ethically around the edges. There’s nothing any more morally wrong with that than there is with hunting curbside grass strips or public parks. It’s not disrespectful unless you trample all over the graves themselves, or otherwise deface them.

In fact, when I do occasionally hunt these spots (yes, I freely admit it! I always get permission — in fact I just got a new one today — and I stay at LEAST five feet away from anywhere that might possibly be a gravesite), I often stroll through first, to read the stones and pay my own respects to the residents. I also sometimes talk to the inhabitants…yes, out loud. They’re not creepy, they’re peaceful; and especially lately, I prefer their respectful silence to the uncivil screeching the living seem to be constantly hurling at each other.

You can also learn a great deal about an area’s history by reading gravestones, and sometimes the inscriptions are quite touching. So please: If you choose not to hunt graveyards, that’s entirely your prerogative. But get a grip and don’t go off half-cocked about how awful people are who choose to see these places for what they are: sacred spaces, yes, but also repositories of some of society’s purest, most unvarnished history, full of those who no longer lie, cheat, steal or cause pain.

And if you really think about it, most of us are gonna end up there someday. I know if I were lying there, I’d infinitely prefer a visit now and then from someone swinging a harmless stick near enough to chat a little and acknowledge my presence, rather than to be isolated forevermore from any contact with the living.

Detecting Crash Sites

I also write in my book about detecting crash sites from downed aircraft, train collisions, car crashes, and even natural disaster areas. Some people consider this ghoulish, butI don’t think so, as long as you’ve allowed enough time to pass that you’re not likely to re-traumatize surviving loved ones (I recommend at least five years, until public memory fades; and really, the older, the better). After all, at some point, it morphs from being a recent memory to a historic event.

Engine from a C-47

Whatever’s still left at the site, the poor victims no longer need. And who knows? You may find something identifiable that first responders and official site searchers missed, and be able to return it to surviving loved ones. Other people may be creeped out by those artifacts, but the survivors may see them very differently. You might end up bringing closure to someone who badly needs it.

And if not, why should non-personally identifiable items be left to rot in the ground just because of how they got there? I realize that people feel that battlefields are sacred and should be left undisturbed, because people fought and died there; but that was a different kind of death, for a vastly different reason. Yet detectorists hold any other Civil War site to be open for picking, and we have no idea of knowing if people may or may not have died there, too. It’s no different than a crash site in that respect. I think the important thing is to approach all of these sites with a sense of respect, and to simply use common sense in how you behave there.

Unknown Maryland Gravesite
I placed blue flags at the corners of the area where I could clearly detect straight lines of rather evenly-spaced targets that rang up as iron, all with similar tones. I believe they are coffin nails, and delineate the spot where two people may be buried.

A Last Thought About Gravesites

I want to add that I was expressly requested a few weekends ago, by owners whose property dates back to 1661, to locate possible grave sites rumored to be on their land. I was happy to do so, including placing flag markers at the corners of where I believe there are two, side-by-side graves.

Why? Because they often have tour groups on their property and they can’t afford to rent ground-penetrating radar, but very much want to protect the area from being walked over by those who may not be aware it’s someone’s final resting place. This is the very opposite of a disrespectful attitude.

I was proud to be asked to perform this service, because I helped some sincere people do the genuinely right thing. I did end up walking over parts of what I came to believe were the graves, but I was as careful as I could be, and I moved as quickly as I could, once I realized what I was standing on. The fact remains, though, that many people walk on modern gravesites every day in cemeteries and don’t seem to think anything of it.

It was the best I could do to be respectful, and I’m satisfied the inhabitants of those graves know what was in my heart while I was doing it. I left there feeling like I had done something important for those currently unknown residents, who may now someday be rediscovered and named so that the public can once again know who they were.Newly marked Maryland graves

I believe in Karma and I believe in the power of intention. I know what my intention was in locating those graves, just like I know what my intention is when I hunt in cemeteries, and it was honorable.

I encourage you, if you don’t have some kind of fear or superstition issue, to avail yourselves of the peaceful experience that comes from detecting the edges of cemeteries. If you aren’t comfortable doing so, that’s okay. But it’s also okay if you are. That’s how I see it.


About Mary Shafer 11 Articles
Award-winning author Mary A. Shafer is a full-time freelance writer in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She has four published books and contributed to two anthologies. She’s a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Nonfiction Authors Association, Pennwriters, Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and is the founder of the Twin Rivers Writers Group in upper Bucks County, PA.

1 Comment

  1. Definitely a new angle to a disputed story. I agree the edges and vacant parts are OK to md. How is this any different from archaeologists digging up Tombs from the 1500s? Metal detector only hits the surface ( 6 to 9 inches).

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