Joint 52nd Northeastern Annual Section / 51st North-Central Annual Section Meeting - 2017

Paper No. 42-1
Presentation Time: 1:30 PM


WILLIAMS, Kevin K., Department of Earth Sciences, SUNY Buffalo State, 1300 Elmwood Ave, Buffalo, NY 14222,

Several years of using ground penetrating radar (GPR) to search for lost burials in Western New York (WNY) have resulted in a significant service to the historic cemeteries where the work was performed. These six cemeteries include large, still-in-use cemeteries in Cheektowaga and Niagara Falls; smaller cemeteries in Batavia, Cheektowaga, and Ellicottville; and a completely overgrown cemetery in Lockport. Each of these locations contained areas believed to contain burials from the early 1800s to early 1900s but devoid of headstones or other markers. Additionally, records from the times of the suspected burials were lost due to floods, fire, and bad recordkeeping. As a non-invasive technique, GPR was an ideal tool to search for evidence of the lost burials.

GPR data were collected at 400 MHz along 2 or 3 parallel transects at the Ellicottville and Lockport locations, and 3D data grids of various sizes were collected at the other four locations. At most locations parallel transects were separated by 50 cm, but the penetration depth depended on the local near-surface soil. Transects were located such that existing burial markers could be used as location references and to help normalize detecting potential burials in the resulting data. This normalization was important because the burials predate use of burial vaults to encase coffins. In fact, many of the burials were in simple pine boxes or involved burying the corpse wrapped only in a blanket.

Results of the studies varied, but in all but one location lost burials were found using GPR. At the overgrown Lockport, NY, location root systems and the unorganized methods of the burials led to disappointing results. At the other five locations, at least several unmarked burials were located in each section studied. For example, an 820 square meter section of the larger cemetery in Cheektowaga revealed over 100 burials. In addition to providing field experiences for students, locating these burials has served the cemeteries, which have taken steps to memorialize the otherwise lost burials.