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Former pastor finds new vocation locating burial spots

Staff Photo: Crystal Tatum. Len Strozier of Omega Mapping Services scans Westview Cemetery in Covington for unmarked graves. Strozier describes the process he uses as similar to performing a sonogram on the ground.

Staff Photo: Crystal Tatum. Len Strozier of Omega Mapping Services scans Westview Cemetery in Covington for unmarked graves. Strozier describes the process he uses as similar to performing a sonogram on the ground.

COVINGTON -- Len Strozier has been at Westview Cemetery for just 30 minutes and he's already discovered six more secrets.

Strozier pushes what looks like a jogging stroller across the grass not too far from some grave markers.

"See that?" he asks, pointing to a screen attached to the "jogging stroller." Waves slowly move across the screen. "Someone's buried there," he says, though the grass he's standing on is not marked in any way.

Strozier is using ground-penetrating radar to locate unmarked graves. The so-called jogging stroller is a technological wonder that measures air pockets. Using this technology, Strozier can differentiate between a burial site, a pipe, a root and empty ground. If a grave is present, he can tell whether the body there is that of an adult or child, based on the air pocket measurements.

Strozier arrived at Westview on Thursday morning and found and flagged six unmarked graves toward the back of the cemetery within half an hour. He'd already located about 30 more near the entrance. He previously found about 300 graves on 4 acres at City Cemetery.

The city of Covington has contracted with Strozier to find the unmarked graves at both locations. Many are pauper's graves and those of black community members.

"They want to honor the heritage of this community and not overlook it any longer. They employed me to come in and do that," Strozier said of city officials.

Ground-penetrating radar is about 80 percent accurate.

"There's no way to be 100 percent unless you dig," he said, despite how the process is depicted on television shows like "CSI."

"They'll show a picture on the screen that looks like a skeleton. There was one where they showed a dog buried next to the person. You don't find skeletons. Some of these graves could be 150 years old. The skeletal remains have been gone for 50 or 100 years," he said.

If Strozier's not sure whether a grave is present, he won't mark it. But if he's confident, he will put down an orange flag, and the city is installing small circular steel markers in those spots.

In addition to honoring the deceased, Strozier's work will provide the city with valuable information about where more land is available for burials -- he estimates there are hundreds of plots available at City Cemetery -- and where it's safe to dig for future projects.

The former pastor of First Baptist Church of Covington, Strozier has spent a good deal of time in cemeteries.

"A lot of preachers do work in cemeteries -- their work carries them there. I was always fascinated with cemeteries," he said.

As his church grew in size, Strozier feared he couldn't minister to individuals with the attention he preferred. Eventually, he decided to leave, and spent about six months unsure of what to do next. He wound up working for a funeral home and cemetery in west Georgia.

His work involved mapping cemetery lots and, sure there was an easier way than his method, Strozier began doing Internet research. He came across Topographix Cemetery Mapping Service, contacted a representative and soon found himself thoroughly trained and named a regional manager. Strozier started his subsidiary, Omega Mapping Services, in Woodbury, and he and his son Benjamin travel all over the state mapping and locating graves.

Unfortunately, finding a grave doesn't help with identifying the body. Occasionally, a family member knows a relative is buried in the general vicinity and who they are. For example, Strozier helped one family that wasn't sure exactly where a father's cremated remains had been buried. Strozier was able to locate the spot so they could bury their mother without disturbing their father's resting place.

Strozier said he finds cemeteries to be contemplative, quiet places and enjoys the peaceful work he does.

After all, "This is my office. There's no one yelling. I've never had a single complaint. No one's in a rush," he said.