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 12 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. 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).

    • Donald, good point. In fact, our detecting around the edges of a cemetery is far less invasive than archaeologists digging up tombs. I realize there is a certain amount of educational value in those activities, but I don’t necessarily think it makes it the right thing to do. I don’t care how old they are, those tombs contain the remains of someone’s ancestors. That seems the very height of disrespect to me. And just because someone has some letters after their name does not mean that person is without less-than-honorable intent, or that they somehow are more worthy to excavate graves than anyone else. I don’t happen to think so, and I don’t think they should be allowed to legally rob graves any more than we should.
      Now, there are those who believe we shouldn’t be able to hunt even around the edges of graveyards, but I think this stems more from their own discomfort with the whole idea of death or with being in close proximity to dead bodies. Or perhaps even their own inability to be trusted to stay outside the bounds of the plots themselves. Either way, I don’t think their personal quirks should be projected onto our legitimate activities. Thanks for your comment.

  2. My hubby recently recieved a gift of a metal detector from our youngest son who is 32. He has been wanting one for years. I grew up in Benicia, California, which was the first Capitol of California. Benicia is a sleep little town nestled in the middle of large cities in the San Fransisco Bay Area, and is drenched in fasinatic history. I thought that the old city cemetery here would be a great place to go md. The thought of how people would react never entered my mind. My great-great-great grandparents are buried there, along with many other family members. In fact, I have the rights that will allow me to be buried there someday, should i choose. My family has a large area there that has the most incredible view of that encompasses parts of 3 other cities AND an unobstructed view of the Benicia Straights, where the water is always calm, reflective, and serene. I hope to be viewing sights “above” ground, for many years, while metal detecting. LOL. There are graves there dating back to early 1800’s. Many teenagers (and yes…adults) used to party up there and lots of underage drinking and whatnot went on, along with a great deal of vandalism. With everything that went on up there for decades, there is bound to be a few md worthy items. Perhaps some old coins, old jewelry, old keys, etc., that were dropped & lost by an intoxicated reveler. I feel that searching for, using a metal detector, (and hopefully finding) a couple of these items are not in any wrong. I would only be removing items that were left by people many years ago, who showed no respect for the graves of other people’s loved ones. Mary, I am with you on every point you have made regarding md cemetsries & crash sights. Not only can a person possibly find an item of value, but by chance, they could find an item that has limitless value in the heart of someone else…

    • Debra, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. In fact, you do need to concern yourself not only with what people think about detecting in and around cemeteries, but also with the legalities of such activity. If you’re detecting a public cemetery, you need to make sure there are no local ordinances against such. And regardless regulation, you can NEVER hunt directly over the graves. Not only is it totally disrespectful, it’s illegal. Any digging above or immediately around a grave is considered grave robbing, and that is illegal in every city in every country in the world, as far as I know. So when I advocate hunting there, as I say in my book, only ever on the outer edges of the grounds, never on or within 5 feet of the burial plots themselves. With private cemeteries, such as those associated with churches, you need to gain outright permission even to be on that property, detecting or not. As for crash sites, I do believe very strongly that one should research the site, and if anything of possible sentimental value to a victim’s family is found, every effort should be made to return the item to the surviving family members. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  3. My dad my brother and I have been detecting cemeteries for at least 30 years. We have had people call the cops on us many many times in many different counties, towns and cities. After talking with us for a couple of minutes, the out come has always been the same. And that is they go tell whoever called us in, that we have as much right to be there as they do. In fact more times than not, they end up shooting the shit with us about some of r detecting stories. I put more hours on my detectors in a month, than most people will in a lifetime. I’ve hunted just about every type of place imaginable, and cemeteries have consistently 100% of the time been the best producing places to detect. I don’t go on top of graves, and I thoroughly fill in and groom every whole I dig. But besides that, the rest is fair game. Now Catholic cemeteries almost always have signs that say private property, so I don’t do those. Anyone who has a “moral” issue with this, I say to bad, worry about yourself and mind your own business, cause I will never stop. Infact, I like the fact that so many people have moral issues with it. I’ve come to the conclusion that’s y they r such good places to hunt. Because no body hunts them. So more good finds for me I guess. Moral issues, lol, please give me a break. Your only breaking the law if u desecrate, or rob a grave. Infact when I c tombstone that r knocked over, I take the time to pick them up and set them back in their place. And I also pick up all trash I see, even if it isn’t mine. It would take hours for me to list every good find from hunting cemeteries over the years. If it bothers people, I don’t care, so let them keep having their little moral issues and forums, and spats and arguments about it. Because while they r wasting time with that non sense, my dad, brother and I are cleaning them out.

    • Jerod, you make excellent points here, and I agree with you wholeheartedly on every one. I honestly think people shying away from hunting graveyards is less about morality and more about the fact that they’re uncomfortable with the whole concept of death and it creeps them out to be there. I have always found cemeteries lovely, quiet, beautiful places to spend time. I have learned more local history in graveyards than I have in books, for sure. And, like, you, when I hunt them, I also re-set toppled headstones (provided I can actually lift them), straighten veteran flagholders, and pick up trash. I’m totally okay if most people continue not to hunt them…more for the rest of us! Thanks for taking the time to leave your comment.

      • Thank u for replying. I enjoyed your article. I’ve always wanted to post my take on detecting cemeteries. We would never cause any disrespect to persons or property. The death thing doesn’t bother me because I don’t believe in the body. I only believe in spirit and a loving God. And spirit and love can never and will never die. But that’s another subject for another time. Lol. Just wanted to list some of our most prized cemetery finds. 1. 1927s walking liberty quarter that looked like it did the day it was minted, had mint luster still. 2. 1909 wheat back with v.d.b. initials. 3. 1900s barber quarter. 4. 1890 and 1900 dimes. 5. Good for one drink token from William h. Tell saloon, drytown c.a. 6. Good for 5¢ in trade, hj bedderman, Stockton California. 7. 1926 two and a half dollar gold piece. 8. 1917 Mercury dime. And numerous silver and turquoise rings and some gold and white gold rings. Also a very large itallion men’s 14k gold necklace. This is just to name a few. All found on walking paths, around inside and outside edge of fence line, or in the parking lots. No harm done. All pieces of history that would have been lost forever. We’re not in it for the money, strictly for the sport. We have always kept everything we find. It’s nice to know someone else out there shares the same opinion, because I was beginning to wonder if it was just us. Happy hunting.

  4. I read your article and the readers’ comments and I think they have good arguments. However, I don’t think that metal detecting graveyards is OK. I wrote an article about this subject. Here’s the link . Please tell me what do you think about it. And if you think my article will add some value to your readers and let them see things from a different perspective, can you please share it with them. You can simply add the link in this article. Thanks. And I advise you to stay away from cemeteries.

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