The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

May 12, 2013

Hangers help archives director identify graves


Associated Press

— 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.

They all drove to a cemetery. Ozbirn told the women she knew approximately the location of their ancestor's grave, but the grave did not have a headstone.

"They said that's not a problem, and they went to the car and got a coat hanger," she said.

The women brought out a pair of straightened hangers and walked along the area. Soon, the hangers crossed, indicating the grave's location while Ozbirn looked on in astonishment. She asked about the hangers.

"They said they're just ordinary coat hangers, and they cut the hook and bent them for a handle," Ozbirn said. "I said, 'yeah, right,' and she said, "I promise it works every time.' "

Ozbirn tried it and discovered it worked. She said she has researched grave dowsing, as it's called, online and read theories about physical elements of a corpse's body playing a role in the phenomenon, but she does not know the validity of the theories.

"Whenever I show this to somebody, I make them do it, too, so they'll know it's not just something that this crazy red-headed woman came up with," Ozbirn joked.

She said there are practical purposes for using the dowsing method. For example, she has come across cases in which a descendent knew that a husband and wife were buried side by side at a specific location of an unmarked grave or worn grave marker, but didn't know which grave was the husband and which was the wife.

Dowsing allowed Ozbirn to identify the gender so they could properly mark the graves.

Ozbirn takes genealogy and history seriously and said dowsing plays another important role, in that it attracts others to genealogy.

"People really get involved when you show them this," she said. "It's the most amazing thing I've ever seen and I've been doing genealogy for 27 years. Anytime you can get somebody interested in genealogy, it's a great thing."