North Carolina man’s search for lost and forgotten graves

A WCU professor uses ground-penetrating radar to search for lost or missing graves.
Published: Aug. 16, 2022 at 12:31 AM EDT
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TRANSYLVANIA COUNTY N.C. (FOX Carolina) - Blair Tormey is on a decade-long mission to help find forgotten graves in North Carolina.

“Just about every cemetery that you can think of has some section or some portion that they know people are buried there, but they don’t know who they are. The graves have at least lost their markings or markings were damaged, or the headstones were removed,” he explained.

The geologist at Western Carolina University searches for history six feet under the ground.

Tormey uses a method he learned while working with oil companies.

“My specialty is ground penetrating radar,” he said.

It looks like a lawnmower sending radar waves into the ground. If those waves find an object, a coffin in this case, they bounce back to Tormey’s antenna.

So far, he has found more than 200 graves. 60 at the Davidson River Cemetery in Transylvania County, NC.

John Kiser and Kate Neckolaishen serve on the board in Transylvania County and have kept up with Tormey’s work.

“It started out that one of the guys on the board and myself was wondering how many people are actually physically buried in here,” said Kiser.

This community cemetery has been around since the early 19th century.

“It just started out as a small community cemetery, and that’s just what it’s always been,” said Neckolaishen.

“We like to honor the people in the county that have passed, and if we can find out more about them, then that’s what we’re all about,” added Kiser.

Many of Tormey’s projects revolve around what he calls an underrepresented group.

“There’s just an abundance of African American cemeteries that have been poorly mapped through their history,” he said.

Even finding 27 unmarked graves in one private cemetery in Hayesville, TN on a former plantation. A local historian would later find descendants of those who worked on that land.

“This was someone’s son or daughter; they lived a life walking the earth here. They had a whole story,” said Tormey.

The exact number of those buried under the ground with proper markings will likely never be known, but Tormey wants to find as many as he can

“As long as this machine is working, I’ll keep doing it,” he said.