Litchfield man uses radar to find unmarked graves in Washington, D.C. cemetery.

New Hampshire Union Leader
January 04. 2014 11:16PM

The dead in Washington, D.C., tell no tales - and they often leave few traces.

But a New Hampshire man has been helping to track them down, or at least pinpoint their eternal resting spots. Bob Perry of Litchfield has been mapping the underground of one of the older cemeteries in the nation's capital using a a ground-penetrating radar device that he wheels around on a modified baby stroller. His work was profiled in the Washington Post on Christmas Day. The newspaper called him the "bone finder."

He said the 35-acre Historic Congressional Cemetery is the most likeable of the hundreds of jobs he has done over the 20 years he's been mapping and taking underground readings in cemeteries and burial spaces.

"It's kind of interesting because over the years the cemetery had gone to hell," he said in a recent telephone interview.

Now, the cemetery is on the rebound, and Perry's work is part of that renewed interest. He uses the radar to locate unmarked graves and then GPS to pinpoint their location. And Perry said he may be next hired to locate and map water and sewer lines running through the cemetery.

The cemetery, on the banks of the Anacostia River, is the burial ground for congressmen and senators, as well as longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, composer John Philip Sousa, "bawdy house" proprietor Mary Ann Hall, and Leonard Matlovich, whose 1988 headstone reads: "Gay Vietnam Veteran. When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one."

Perry, 66, said he expects to locate as many as 5,000 unmarked graves by the time he finishes his work at Historic Congressional Cemetery.

"People just didn't put up headstones," he said. "Sometimes they were paupers. Back in the old days, people used to go into cemeteries and they'd forget about them."

He's divided the cemetery into 27 sections, and he scans each section in methodical sweeps. He uses red flags to demark spots where he finds unusual readings. Within a few sweeps, Perry can determine with "high probability" where human remains lie.

The cemetery is paying about $120,000 for the work. Perry said that may sound expensive, but it is well worth it if the work identifies unused land that can be used for new graves.

Perry, a U.S. Navy veteran, served in Vietnam. After his discharge, he went to school for mechanical design and draftsmanship.

While Perry was working as a technical illustrator, his supervisor, who moonlighted as a cemetery manager, asked him to compose a cemetery map.

That led to other cemetery work. He started the company Topographix and eventually added ground-penetrating radar and, more recently, GPS services.

His work takes him across the United States, including Hawaii, and he's been invited to do work in Vietnam and areas of the south Pacific that Japan occupied during World War II.

He said one of his more interesting jobs was in Manchester, when he used radar to determine there were no bodies on land that St. Augustin Cemetery wanted to sell to developers.

During his work, he discovered a hand grenade.

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