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This article was published 26/5/2011 (3612 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
ANOLA -- Jack Mavins says "witching" a lot but allows that "I really should say 'dowsing.' "
No, witching sounds better. Graves and witching go together like corpses and suspicious deaths.
Mavins, 79, is a witcher of lost and unmarked graves, searching out unknown burial sites on windy hilltop cemeteries and vacant corners of old farmyards for the past 20 years.
Mavins claims to not only find where the bodies are buried but also determine whether it's a male or female, and whether it's an adult, adolescent or child. He uses two welding rods and they will cross each other where the body lies and uncross once he's walked past. The welding rods will spin counter-clockwise for a female -- no jokes, please -- and clockwise for males.
He says he can also tell whether it's animal or human. Humans lie straight whereas animals are typically on their side, often curled with their legs in front of them. The only thing he can't say is why it works. Perhaps the dead rise ethereally from their graves and mischievously whack the metal rods when Mavins passes. Like others who claim to witch, usually water and then it's usually called 'divining', Mavins thinks it's nothing out of the ordinary, really. His two sons can do it; his wife and daughter can't.
Mavins honed his witching skills at the Millbrook Cemetery in the RM of Springfield, where he was custodian for 10 years. It was a good place to start. The Millbrook Cemetery is one of the oldest in Manitoba, dating back to 1881. He mapped out the cemetery, determining where the unmarked graves were, and cross-referenced that information with cemetery records kept in the memory of the previous custodian.
Kathy Stokes, president of the Manitoba Genealogical Society (MGS), says Mavins's work is invaluable. Thanks to Mavins, Springfield has some of the best catalogued cemeteries in the province.
That's vital to the MGS. An MGS initiative has so far catalogued 1,362 cemeteries in the province, transcribing to paper all the information on headstones before weathering makes inscriptions illegible. There are still about 150 cemeteries to do. Most of the work has been with cemeteries outside the city and some of the cemeteries are pretty small and on private farm fields.
But it has also done the St. John's Cathedral Cemetery in Winnipeg, with its roughly 12,000 graves, and Elmwood Cemetery that's home to 51,000 graves.
Springfield is Manitoba's oldest rural municipality, started in 1873, and also the largest. Mavins has catalogued the four main cemeteries in Springfield. There are another 16 small and mainly private cemeteries in the RM, including Hutterite colony graveyards.
He also does private work. In one case, Mavins helped a Prairie Grove man detect where two children were buried on a property over half a century earlier. "They were buried right between two trees outside his living room window," he said.
Another time, "I was at a family picnic in Ontario and the family had a baby sister who died in 1943. They thought they knew where the body was but weren't sure. I found it and now it has a gravestone."
In another case, Mavins said, a family knew it had a cemetery plot with five burials but didn't know which family members were buried there. "I witched it and could tell them the number of adults, adolescents and babies," he said. From that, the family determined the identities.
"Yes, it's for real," maintains MGS's Stokes. Stokes was a complete skeptic, she said, until Mavins gave a demonstration and then had her try to find an unmarked grave.
He handed her the L-shaped welding wires and she walked and "all of a sudden they just crossed, bang, like that. I was startled. I was standing on a grave."
Many regard it as Ouija board-like bunk. There are only unproven theories, such as witchers have high levels of electricity in their bodies that help them somehow detect objects beneath the earth.