What you need to know when searching for a grave (Part 1):

By: Jocelyne Terilli

Finding something meant to be a secret in an expansive and difficult terrain can seem like an impossible task. You might even have some information from a suspect but details are often hazy. Their actions were usually done at night and remote locations don’t have many landmarks.

But with the right training and knowledge, thrown in with some tips, it might not seem so daunting. We talked with Bryan Brendley, a Professor in the Biology Department and Forensic Institute at Guilford College about discovering clandestine graves. This turned into a webinar that we held in March and below are the highlights, the four things you need to know:

  • It’s instinct to rush in and go running around looking for a gravesite. That method, with good intentions, never works. As Bryan points out, “you need to take time to get a feel for the area.” Talking to locals or conservation officers in the area will help you devise a plan and strategy with a designated search pattern. According to Bryan, “It doesn’t matter what pattern you use but you need to take the time to create one so you’re not repeating work.”
  • T-Probe/T-Bar. Using a T-bar, you’ll be able to see when /if soil has been moved away. Soil is naturally packed in layers. When it’s moved around, dug up and then replaced, the soil is looser. Your T-bar will sink into the ground if the soil is disturbed, letting you know you might have just discovered something.
  • Cadaver Dogs. These dogs are very effective and they can cover a lot of ground easily. However, keep in mind their limitations. They sometimes do find false positives. Other remains, such as rodents and animal bones, might throw them off, especially if it’s an old grave.
  • The environment. As with many crime scenes, investigating becomes about what doesn’t belong in an area or scene. Perpetrators often want to conceal their crime so they use shrubs or pat down soil; they try “too hard to make things blend in.” These are clues that something happened in the area. Other clues are depressions in the soil where a suspect worked, soil rising as a body bloats, or differences in vegetation and cracks in the soil.

This is just the tip of the iceberg about discovering clandestine graves. Our webinar was so popular, we’re holding a class from August 1 - August 3, taught by Bryan Brendley.

Please contact us for access to other webinars. We’ve covered “Crime Scene Photography,” “Best Practices when Field Testing for Narcotics”, “Using Oblique Lighting” and more! Email us at or call us 800.356.7311 and we’ll send them to you!

Stay tuned and sign up for our emails to receive Part 2: What you need when you find a clandestine grave.

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