Cemetery maintenance worker John Stiens stood in the grass of Maryville’s Oak Hill Cemetery holding an L-shaped metal rod in each hand. He stepped slowly behind a grave marker and the rods effortlessly twisted in his hands. They crossed in front of him.
“That’s where it starts,” he said of the casket lying six feet below him.
He started walking again. A few steps later the rods swung open again, pointing straight ahead.
“That’s where it ends.”
Although this demonstration of using dowsing rods to locate a casket was over a marked grave, Stiens has used those rods to locate numerous unmarked graves in Oak Hill Cemetery. However, what the rods are telling him exactly is a mystery.
“I don’t know if it reads the casket or the people,” Stiens said. “But it works.”
Stiens worked for the city of Maryville for 12 years before retiring a year ago and going part-time. For him, using the dowsing rods to find unmarked graves and sometimes water and sewer lines, is relatively new.
“The guy who worked here before me had talked about doing it to find graves,” he said. “He really didn’t show me. I just started doing it.”
The rods work for Stiens, he just doesn’t know why.
He smiled. “Good question,” he said. “I don’t know how they work.”
He just holds the rods in front of him; if he walks over a grave – or water – the rods simply cross.
“You just hold them out,” he said. “They’ll turn.”
Stiens has used his skills as a dowser to find graves at the city-owned cemetery because out of 4,137 closed grave spaces, 579 of them are unmarked. Christina James, geographic information systems technician for the city of Maryville, has been trying to map the cemetery and has seen Stiens’ dowsing rods at work.
“We’ve gone out and we’ve been on a place where we think there might be an unknown grave, and sometimes we’ll pick something up, and sometimes we won’t,” she said. “I would say they’re about 70 to 80 percent accurate. That’s my opinion.”
She’s also used the dowsing rods herself.
“Oh yeah, I have tried it,” she said, and the rods turned in her hands. “It did. I’m assuming it worked for me.”
People have used dowsing rods for centuries, starting with forked sticks and gravitating toward metal rods. No matter the style, people have used these rods to find water, ore deposits, and hidden graves, according to the American Society of Dowsers.
Page 2 of 2 - Scientists have chalked up the seemingly animate dowsing rods to unconscious movements in the hand. Stiens doesn’t buy that.
“There’s people tell me I’m turning them,” he said. “But there’s no way I’m turning them myself.”
Local historian Mandi Brown has used dowsing rods for more than 40 years. She doesn’t know why they work for her either.
“There’s no scientific reason for why it works, but let me tell you it works,” she said. “I was taught by my grandmother to do it, so it’s tried and true.”
Like Stiens, Brown uses her dowsing skills to discover unmarked graves that hide in local cemeteries. Brown said between 10 and 13 percent of all graves are unmarked.
“Before the 1900s, they didn’t always use stone to mark the grave,” she said. “Those who couldn’t afford it, they used some kind of wooden marker then they disintegrated. Some stones sunk.”
Regardless of a person’s opinion on dowsing, Stiens’ results speak for themself.
“There’s been a lot of graves out here we’ve found. A lot of unmarked graves,” he said. “We know they’re there, we just don’t know where, and we’ve found a lot of them.”
When it comes to teaching someone how to dowse, Stiens said he can’t do it. He just hands over his rods and lets people give it a go.
“Some of them kind of believe it. Some don’t, and some don’t know; they just want to try it,” Stiens said. “There ain’t no way you’re going to teach it. You either got it or you don’t.”