“You never want to just go in and start digging,” says Lori E. Baker, a forensic anthropologist at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., who has dug up hundreds of graves in public and private cemeteries since founding Reuniting Families, an organization that tries to locate and repatriate the remains of migrants who died crossing the border. Don’t start digging before receiving permission from local officials. If the grave is unmarked, use ground-penetrating radar. Don’t assume anything about what you’ll unearth. “We’ve found burials with seven people in one grave haphazardly thrown in, some in body bags, some in garbage bags, some in biohazard bags,” Baker says.
If you’re digging up a grave for an uncontroversial reason — a family wants remains moved between cemeteries, say — it can be fairly straightforward spadework. Often, though, bodies are exhumed to uncover legal or historic wrongdoing, in which case you’ll need to meticulously map and photograph everything. Use square-nose shovels sharpened with a metal file until the blade slices through the dirt. “Like cutting cake,” Baker says. Start by scraping off the top layer of grass. Slowly remove one layer of soil at a time. If you’re lucky, the remains will be contained in an intact coffin. If not, use masonry trowels and brushes to remove dirt from around the body while leaving it in place, which is especially important in a criminal investigation, where your goal is to reconstruct the circumstances of the burial. Map the grave in 3-D with a device called a total station theodolite. Pile the dirt alongside your hole, sifting it first if you see any bits of bone. If you’re confident the body is skeletonized, wear long pants, shirt, gloves, and closed-toe shoes; if you see flesh, protect yourself from blood-borne infectious diseases with a full Tyvek suit, doubled gloves sealed with duct tape, a mask and goggles.
Be forewarned: The work can be grueling, to say nothing of the psychological distress that comes from seeing decomposing human bodies, particularly those of people who perished in some cruel or premature way. Resist the impulse to harden yourself against their humanness. “Remember that every person you exhume has people somewhere that care about and love them,” Baker says.