RUSSELLVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Chris Ozbirn stood directly over a gravestone with her hands loosely gripping two straightened-out metal clothes hangers.
Ozbirn, director of the Franklin County Archives, has used the hangers many times after she has straightened them, removed their hook and bent them about 90 degrees at one end to serve as a handle.
With that, the hanger was ready for Ozbirn's work. Standing alongside a grave, she held the hangers parallel to each other over the grave and the hangers came together, forming an "X." Ozbirn then walked the length of the grave. After walking for several feet, the hangers again moved to where they were parallel to each other.
"You can tell if it's an adult grave by walking the length of it," she said. "It comes back out straight after you come to the end of the grave. If it had done so after a shorter distance, I would have known it's a child's grave. The average adult's grave is 93 inches long."
Ozbirn said no one is certain why the hangers cross each other over a body, but that oddity has served as a valuable tool in searching for grave sites.
"There are so many unmarked graves, and this tells us that someone is buried at a location," she said.
There's an additional twist to the phenomenon: When the hangers are positioned over the head or foot of a grave, they move left if a female is buried there and right if it's a male.
As director of the archives, Ozbirn often helps descendants search cemeteries to find or verify burial locations of their ancestors.
Along the way, Ozbirn learned the hanger trick. One day in 2006, two women from Texas came into the archives office and told her they were conducting family research.