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W.B. Wood




Searching for unmarked Graves or for Unknown Body Disposal Sites





The initiation of a search for suspected human remains is usually based upon the reports of informants, or upon the discovery of information that arouses police suspicions that a body or bodies may have been disposed of in a particular area e.g. the Backpacker murders, the Neerkol Orphanage Investigation etc.


I have been approached on several occasions by the Police to assist in the location of suspected disposal sites of bodies:


Tallebudgera Creek

Lowood City dump



Occasionally a search is made for unmarked prehistorical or historical burials when evidence or suspicions exist as to their presence eg accidental disturbance of the Broadbeach Aboriginal Burial Site, The Brookfield Cemetery


Body disposal


The placement of a dead body in an unmarked location may be due to accidental or intentional placement and may involve primary or a secondary disposal (i.e. postmortem movement from one location to another eg the dumping of the body of Japanese tourist in Cairns recently.




- heart attack, fall, fire, falling rock/tree (widow-makers), drowning etc.




- a murder or a suicide

The disposal method will be influenced by:


- the ease and availability of a suitable disposal method or location

-         condition and size of remains:


. complete, fresh, decomposing etc.

                                    . incomplete/dismembered/separated


-         the physical strength of the assailant &/or more than one perpetrator/assistant


                        - local geography          . soil type

                                                            . density of vegetation

                                                            . ease of access - walking, driving, boating


                        - availability of transport & digging tools etc.



Disposal Location:


            . Surface disposals:       open - no attempt made to hide or cover up the remains


camouflaged with wrapping or covering materials


                                                incarcerated/enclosed - eg 44gall drum, bags, wrapping materials,

  car-boots, fridges, boxes


                                                corpse reduction:          incinerated


                                                                                    fragmentation (wood-chipping machine))


            . Water disposal:           free, weighted, container, wrapping


            . Burial:             grave, mine shaft, dump, well, soil excavation sites,


            . Other                         encasement in concrete, drums, other containers



Corpse decomposition in surface disposals:


 results in:


. rapid skeletonisation - depending on location & time of the year (especially Temp. &



. soil impregnation with fluid decomposition  by-products leading to:

- vegetation suppression then

-  vegetation enhancement


            . gas (odour) emissions:             - insect attraction: flies, beetles, ants etc

                                                                        - animal attraction: dogs, goannas, birds, pigs



            . heat emission                                      - from chemical reactions & maggot mass


            . exposure to physical agents                 - weathering: UV bleaching,

   cracking & flaking;  staining of bones

                                                                        - heat: charing, calcination

                                                                        - water: movement, insect recolonisation, adipocere



            . exposure to biological agents   - results in more rapid decomposition, bone

  destruction and scattering:


- insects: flies, beetles, termites

                                                                                    - dogs, goannas, birds, pigs, rodents



Effects of Ground Intrusion (digging a hole)


            . soil removal & replacement results in


- disturbance of natural stratigraphy

                                                - tool marks in trench wall

                                                - mixing of subsoil with surface soil - soil lenses within the soil pile

  & grave fill

                                                - soil scatter

                                                - soil aeration

                                                - water penetration into the grave fill

                                                - surface water collection in soil subsidence areas

                                                - soil compaction & shrinkage (from grave margins)


            . importance of soil type


            - sand (wet or dry)

                                                - clay

                                                - gravel

                                                - silt


some soils compact faster eg sand, some are more pervious to water eg gravel, some are almost impervious to water eg clay etc.


            . importance of vegetation


            - density of above ground tree trunks, branches, foliage, shrubery,

   grasses  etc  camouflage, location & recovery

                                                - importance of vegetation root patterns - size & density

                                                - both the above affect the ease of digging a hole



Effects of a Body Inclusion in a Grave


. corpse intrusion results in:


- excess displacement of soil & production of a burial mound


. corpse decomposition results in:


            - secondary soil subsidence

            - soil fertilisation (nutrients)

                        - insect & animal attraction

                                                - gas & heat emission


Effects of a Body Disposal in a Water Environment:


                        corpse movement

                        submersion then flotation (gas production with bloating)

                        predators: fish, crustacea, sharks, crocodiles; bite marks; dismemberment

                        delayed decomposition; separation of distal segments

                        adipocere formation

                        marine colonisation of exposed bone surfaces

                        surface abrasion



Search Organisation


            . assess the area of the search and try to determine potential problems

            . develop a list of anticipated burial indicators that are to be communicated to the

  members of the search party to assist with visual identification of a potential disposal site

            . determine the search strategy

. determine the search techniques and investigative methods best suited to the search area

  and conditions

            . in anticipation of the discovery of a burial site, determine beforehand the recovery

  procedures and methods to be used

            . develop a list of the equipment and materials requirements for the search and recovery

            . determine the membership of the search team

            . have a presearch conference of all key personnel involved



Search Methods


            . visual inspection - emu parade, grid search

            . soil probes (Ousley 1995)

            . surface soil removal (Bass and Birkby 1978)

            . GPR (Miller 1996)

            . infrared photography

            . cadaver dogs

            . methane gas detectors


Case Studies:


Mangrove swamp search                      - effects of mud burial environment,

- reliability of informant

Lowood Garbage dump search - density of cultural artifacts, organic decomposition

                                                            - dump disposal records, reliability of informant

Epsom backyard search                        - informant re burial

Brookfield cemetery search                   - poor historical records of unmarked burials

Kynuna swagmen search                       - informant, burial

NIFS workshop search                        - informant, burials

Crocodile victim search             - informant, water environment

            NT mine shaft disposal search               - informant, safety issues involved in searching a

  disused mine









Bass WM and WH Birkby, 1978 The Method could make the Difference. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 47:6-11


Ousley DW, 1995 Techniques for Locating Burials, with emphasis on the Probe. Journal of  Forensic Sciences, JFSCA, 40 (5):735-740


France DL, Griffin TJ, Swanburg JG et al., 1992 A Multidisciplinary approach to the detection of clandestine graves. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 37(6):1445-58


Miller PF, 1996 Disturbance in the Soil: Finding Buried Bodies and other Evidence using Ground Penetrating Radar. Journal of Forensic Sciences, JFSCA, 41(4):648-52.