Keys to Kansas City's historical past may lie in the metro's cemeteries

Posted at 4:40 PM, May 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-16 18:19:02-04

There are all kinds of ways to make ends meet, but for geophysicist Keith Seramur, he makes a living among the dead.

"We use this on archaeology sites that may be 6,000 years old, 10,000 years old," said Seramur. "When you get into prehistoric sites, you don't have as well organized cultural remains, they are random pits."

On this day, however, he's not hunting for ancient burial grounds in a faraway land. Instead, he's working the grave site at the 19th century Old Parkville Cemetery. His goal — find the exact locations of the cemetery's unmarked graves.

While the bodies are below ground, some of them lack headstones above ground either because they deteriorated over time, or because the families of the dead could not afford one. That's where Seramur's ground penetrating radar system comes in. Think of it as a subterranean GPS.

"When the radar encounters soil material with different physical properties, part of the radar energy is reflected back up from the ground, collected in the antennae and then recorded in the recorder that sits on top of the three wheel cart," he explained.

In other words, the machine can determine soil that has been turned over or dug up. That signals a potential grave.

It's a partnership between the City of Parkville, Park University and Seramur Associates to discover just who is buried in as many as 100 unmarked graves.

"This is actually a subfield in geography called necro-geography - literally geography of the dead. The cultural human side of geography, about how a cemetery is a cultural landscape that tells us a lot about ourselves, a lot about our society and the cultures who lived their previously," said David Fox, a Park University Geography Professor.

He and Prof. Scott Hageman will use the data they collect from this day in future semesters at the school.

"For the city, it is important just for the fact that when people show up and they want to know where aunt or uncle so and so is buried, or my great great grandparents - it just does not look good if you shrug your shoulders and say well, we don't know," said Hageman. 

But that'll change in a few days. Once the trio logs all the data, people from around the globe will be able to look up long lost relatives whose final resting spots were in Parkville, Missouri.

"Science can be done anywhere," said Hageman. "This is a great opportunity for our students to do applied science. They are able to come look and figure out that there are a lot of children int his cemetery. What years did we have a cholera outbreak, what years did we have influenza epidemics."