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For Nome Cemetery, Radar Survey Offers New Insights — and Prompts New Questions

Landscape view of plain white grave markers at the Nome cemetery.
403 “anomalies” at the Nome cemetery, recently discovered by ground-penetrating radar, were marked with a red flag and plain white headboard. Photo: Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM.

Ground-penetrating radar has found a possible 403 unidentified occupants in the Nome Municipal Cemetery after five acres worth of land was surveyed in June 2018.

The city now sells burial plots and permits for burials but realized it couldn’t move forward in organizing or developing the land if it didn’t locate the cemetery’s unmarked graves.

In February, the Nome City Council hired geophysicist Dr. Esther Babcock of Logic Geophysicists to use radar to detect where in the cemetery there may be anomalies, like an unmarked casket or body. Babcock’s company specifically uses ground-penetrating radar in harsh environments, like the tundra.

Dr. Babcock gave a brief summary of how the radar works:

“It’s similar to the radar you use for planes or aircraft, only you put it toward the ground, and it’s at a different frequency. As the radio waves travel through the ground, where there are different materials or buried objects… some of that energy is reflected back to the receiver and measured.”

Babcock refers to the objects located in the ground as “anomalies.” She is able to use software, pattern recognition, and data processing to determine which of those might be graves.

“What I’m seeing, and measuring, is that reflected radio energy. There’s a lot of data processing. For example, in Nome, we collected data over some of the known sites, and then we used those patterns to look at when we see other patterns that are anomalous or different, to try to decide where those anomalies are most likely to be graves.”

Essentially, Babcock looked at the data of the known graves and compares those patterns to the other places she has scanned. She can look at the patterns to see if a grave is likely.

The radar is considered one of the best tools in the industry, but it’s impossible to know for certain what’s in the ground without digging it up. It could be a buried utility, log, or tundra clay. Dawn Ubelaker oversees the Nome cemetery, and given the sensitive nature of the project, she wants to be careful.

“GPR is not foolproof, so I’m sure that there are some things in her report that show up as anomalies that are not necessarily burials, but with the type of work that she was doing, locating unmarked graves, it was more important to be conservative than not.”

Each anomaly was therefore treated as an unmarked grave. Over the summer, they were marked with flags and restricted by an 8-foot-by-10-foot rectangle. The city is now in the process of putting up plain white headboards on those sites.

Nome has created a more formalized burial process, and knowing the location of these anomalies could help with record-keeping and cemetery organization. Until 2017, family and volunteers would take a loved one to the hill up Glacier Creek Road and bury them themselves. That location was not always reported back to City Hall. Nome does not have a funeral home or undertaker.

Such a system made record-keeping difficult, and sometimes, burials were not marked, or records have been lost due to time or fire. Some old grave markings have succumbed to weather erosion or damage, leaving little clue as to who lies below.

But this means there are likely cemetery residents who lay at rest unmarked. Digging has discovered unmarked graves before. Since the early 2000s, Caroline “Cussie” Kauer and Debbie Redburn of Nome have worked to create maps and records of the cemetery that the city now uses.

However, Kauer herself found that one of the flagged anomalies was in her established family plot. With those spaces restricted, Kauer addressed the City Council in October with concerns. She wanted to ensure she could still be buried alongside her father or where her family, the Readers, have permitted space.

“Now as a family, we run head-long into a hundred years of community neglect. Thought should be given to creating rules and regulations for the new cemetery expansion area, and situations such as ours should be handled on a case by case basis. If I have to move up six inches or over a foot, so be it. But I don’t want to be told to move over 8 to 10 feet for a log or permafrost or chunk of tundra clay. A request should in no way be interpreted as disrespect of a previous burial if that’s what these are. Rather, it would be an accurate marking of a previously unconfirmed site (that) would now become part of the Reader family plot.”

Kauer was granted permission by the City Council to explore the anomalies without city equipment but with the agreement that should an unmarked grave be discovered, it be marked and left intact. Interim City Manager John Handeland thought the exploration would be helpful.

“It actually seems prudent to identify those anomalies in that location. In this particular area, it pretty much looks like it’s virgin ground. I have full faith that they would do it properly, and if anything is disturbed, as Cussie said, they wish to mark them properly.”

According to Ubelaker, after exploratory digging, the Reader plot anomalies did not contain human remains.

But, the only 100-percent-certain way to identify the anomaly is to dig. Dr. Babcock stressed that the tools can only do so much.

“It’s not an infallible tool. GPR in particular has about an 80% success rate with grave locations, but there is always the potential for false positives — meaning you decided something was a grave and it was not.”

Still, Ubelaker feels it is more respectful to leave the other anomalies alone.

“If those have been identified as likely burials, that’s how I’d like to treat them. I would strongly prefer not to disturb those likely graves. I’d like to just mark that area as unavailable for future digging and treat it as though somebody is already buried there.”

Ubelaker says that with the cemetery expansion, the City has plenty of space for future burials.

With these newly-marked graves, current Nome citizens can make plans while keeping former residents in mind. Those who would like to know more about cemetery fees and burial plots can contact the city of Nome by visiting City Hall or going online.

Image at top: 403 “anomalies” at the Nome cemetery, recently discovered by ground-penetrating radar, were marked with a red flag and plain white headboard. Photo: Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM.

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