The Cemetery Advocacy Series Part One
Much of our heritage is in the ground itself-in countless cemeteries scattered all over every county in every state in the nation. In many states, the law and its administrative rules prohibit unauthorized disinterment and establish a clear process for examining and reburying remains. Reburial is conducted under strict conditions as established by the states and closely monitored.

Or so we are told.

For decades, the remains of our forefathers have been removed from their resting places, in the form of threats posed by urban development, agricultural activity, lumbering operations, vandalism, and neglect. A simple search of the Internet or a local newspaper will quickly show that while the laws do exist in many states, they are ignored on a regular basis by both developers and local officials. This is not a problem of the past. It is one that we face today, and it gets worse every day.

Saving an endangered cemetery is not an easy project. It is not fun, and it is not something to be taken lightly. Your more than likely to make more enemies than friends as a result of your efforts. It will require a great deal of time, energy and effort on your part. These issues can become emotionally charged and can drag on for a considerable amount of time. But if you are successful, the results are so rewarding. You have taken steps to save an irreplaceable part of your state and local history. You are becoming an advocate for the cemetery and those who are buried there.

In order to assist you in getting started Saving Graves has put together the following information that we hope will be of value. You must realize that just as the laws regarding cemetery preservation are different in every state, no two cemetery problems are exactly alike. With that in mind,  it would be pointless to try to focus on one specific issue. This is only a set of suggestions. There is a great more that will need to be done than what we go into here. This is only intended to assist those interest in getting off on the right foot.


Before anyone else is going to assist you or even take notice, you have to make sure that they are aware of the problem and are open to the concept that cemeteries are valuable and should not be destroyed so that a farmer can plant a few more crops, or that the local retail or grocery store can open up a new location. Some people will have no difficulty understanding this at all, but there are others that you will have explain why this is not right. You must be able to clearly inform and convince them why cemeteries are valuable. Jeanne Robinson of the Oregon Historic Cemeteries Association in her paper on Cemetery Advocacy summed it up this way:

    * They are repositories of unique genealogical, historical, religious, cultural, societal and medical information that may not be recorded in any other format.
    * They are free public museums filled with history and irreplaceable artwork.
    * They are places in which the average citizen has an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors.
    * They are sources of humor, pathos, and folklore.
    * They are laboratories filled with antique biological specimens.
    * They are habitat for birds and wildlife -- greenspaces.

You must be able to describe the problem as briefly as possible, but at the same time offering detail. Finding the right mix of what to say, or sometime what not to say is vital. Keep in mind that your audience quite likely may have never experienced visiting an endangered cemetery. You may want to take them to see for themselves or produce photographic evidence. Please be sure that you have permission to enter the cemetery property or cross adjoining properties before taking people out to see the cemetery. Be prepared at a moments notice to talk anyone interested about your cemetery, its location, the danger it faces, the attitude of neighbors in the area, etc.

You will need to have a clear solution in mind to the problem taking into account  costs, time lines, impact to the cemetery, visitors, neighborhood, etc., as well as  plans for on-going maintenance after the solution is implemented. keep in mind that as a result of your efforts you may save the cemetery, but what's to stop someone else from trying the same thing a few years down the road?

One of the most important things that we cannot stress upon you enough is DON'T DO THIS ALONE! It's just too big of a job for most people to do by themselves. You have selected this cemetery to fight for because for some reason it is special to you. You may or may not have loved ones located there. You just know that what is taking place is not right and it needs to be stopped. Try and find others who feel as you do (no matter what the reason) and enlist their help in developing your plan of action. Some of them may be hard to find, others not. But they are out there, and they care just as much as you do. These people can help clarify your plea and enhance your voice. They will help you be an effective advocate (or one or more of them may do it better than you). The more voices you have, the stronger your message is. Remember, the goal is to save your cemetery -- not to gain recognition for having done so. Stay focused.


One of the first things that you need to do is to start accumulating whatever evidence there may be from the past as proof of the size and number of burials. You may find records of the cemetery in various locations. You must be sure to utilize every record available to you at the county or local library, in the city and county offices, as well as important family documents found by tracing and contacting many pioneer descendants. The one thing that you pass by could possibly hold exactly the information that you need to save the cemetery Questions that you must look into include:

    * Are there previous tombstone inventories from earlier decades?
    * Are there any indexed listings of burials in the county or local newspapers? Have there been any articles printed on this cemetery in the county or local newspapers at any time in the past?
    * Does the local historical or Genealogy society have records on these cemeteries?
    * Were there ever any county indigent burials made there where the coroner or public administrator's office may have records?
    * Are there any County or Local History books or publications that would have records or mention of the cemetery within?

In the case of potential development on the cemetery property

    * Was an Environmental Impact Report ever written for this development project?
    * What does the section on Cultural Resources say about the cemetery? The watershed/drainage effects?
    * Has the State Trust for Historic Preservation been notified of this potential loss?
    * Are there any endangered species (wildlife, plantlife, etc) within the cemetery or it's immediate vicinity?

If you have names of some of those buried there, sign up for all the genealogy lists for each state (ie. through Rootsweb, such as This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and send a NOTICE TO POSSIBLE DESCENDANT FAMILY OF THOSE BURIED IN ??? CEMETERY. State succinctly what is happening and provide the names of people to contact to complain about this. (If you don't make it easy for them, chances are they won't come forward.) More on this below.

Are there slave or African American graves involved? If so, perhaps the NAACP or other African American organizations could step in to help also.


You will want to determine the current and previous ownership of the cemetery property. You may find that the land was set off and a cemetery established on one of the early recorded deeds, but in latter deeds the cemetery is not mentioned. It is vital to have all documented transactions involving the land the cemetery is located upon.

We suggest first starting with the most recent deed/transfer/title at the appropriate courthouse & working your way back. Make copies! You may need to pull out old wills as well. These will be located in a different area of the Courthouse. In some cases they may have been relocated to an archives building.

You may discover that in some cases the cemetery may have been deeded at some point to the township in the hopes that this will protect it from development or relocation.  This may not necessarily be the case as the laws  here will differ from state to state. You will need to research this point in detail. In California, for example,  counties may only legally relocate public cemeteries for specific reasons. One is because of water resources reservoir projects. The other, and only one other, is a county hospital cemetery and that is only if the need for the land occupied by the cemetery is for an equal and similar public purpose (ie institution, hospital, etc.). The site having been deeded over at some point may not sufficient to protect it from development or relocation, but it certainly could be helpful, provided the current cemetery trustee is willing to stand up to the developers. It is advised that if all possible to poll the members of the Township Board to find out what their position on the issue is.


You should be able to get copies of tax maps, aerial photographs from your State or County Department of Transportation, Farm Bureau, etc. Sometimes these areas have plat maps as well. Go as far back as possible with photographs.

There is also thermal imaging photography which is another option, but can be costly depending on how large of an area you are concerned with.


If you know of a real estate attorney, have him/her look over everything. As a word of warning here, you can have 20 different attorneys look over your information and get back 20 different opinions. Each one interprets the law into what they know best. However, this is still a good step to take and most attorneys will not charge you for an initial visit.


Most, but not all states have some type of laws that protect abandoned public graveyards from the threats posed by urban development, agricultural activity, lumbering operations, vandalism, and neglect. The law must be researched so that you have a clear understanding of exactly is and is not legal in the state. This is something that you can do on your own, or you may wish to have an attorney to assist you. If you choose to do this on your own, you will need to get a copy of the State laws regarding cemeteries. Please be aware that the laws regarding cemeteries are different in every state. You will also need to be aware that there will be cemetery related laws in many different sections of the state code. Most States have their laws available on the Internet, and have included the ability to search the entire code. If you enter the word "cemetery" into the search box you should receive a listing of every occurrence of the word in the entire state code. Saving Graves provides links to these laws on every State page where possible. If possible, you will want to print these out so as to be able to quickly refer to them as needed.

Many states are now offering an online Legal Information Center where there will be a wide assortment of legal information. While the basics such as the State code will be provided free of charge there may be a small fee required to access other parts of these sites.

In some locations there may be county or local laws that will be in addition to the state laws. These may or may not be accessible on the Internet.


We at Saving Graves strongly believe that the possible presence of unmarked burials should be considered in development projects. If the location of burials is known in the early stages of development planning, it would take little effort or cost to modify plans and leave the burials undisturbed.

Whether it is through formal reviews or by contacting the Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) or other such state agency directly, developers and planning agencies should consider project effects on burial sites. The OSA regularly works with developers and agencies to help identify burial sites within potential development areas. If a burial site is present, the OSA may suggest modifications to development plans to protect the site.

Prior to construction-preferably in the early stages of planning-developers, zoning and planning boards, other agencies, and landowners should contact the OSA. Provide maps and descriptions of development area boundaries, or simply call the OSA with the legal description. The OSA will check its records and will provide information on any known burials within the project area. This relatively quick step can save time and money in the long run.

An absence of recorded sites does not necessarily mean no burials are present. It could just mean that no one has ever looked for mounds or burial sites in that particular location. The OSA can examine a site's environmental and topographic setting to assess the potential for unrecorded burials. Blufftops, ridge spurs, and high terraces overlooking rivers and streams are likely settings for burial sites. If an area appears to have a high potential for containing burials, an OSA Burials Program staff archaeologist can make a site visit, upon request, to determine if any obvious burial features, such as mounds, are present.

Unmarked historic-era cemeteries can be present in a variety of landforms and locations. Archival records and interviews with local informants can often provide valuable information on a cemetery's presence.

The State Historical Society also can provide state and federal guidelines for archaeological surveys. All federally assisted or licensed projects must be reviewed by the Historical Society to ensure compliance with federal historic preservation laws.



There are many state and local agencies that you may want to contact. These would include the following

    * Governors Office
    * State Attorney Generals Office
    * State Trust for Historic Preservation
    * Dept. of Archives & History
    * State Conservation Dept.
    * Environmental Management
    * State Historical Commission
    * Law Enforcement
    * Planning Offices
    * County/Local Director of Public Works

In the case of a cemetery with Indian or Veterans graves, you should also contact the following:

    * State Indian Affairs Commission
    * State Dept. of Veterans Affairs
    * State Military Dept.
    * Local VFW Post
    * Local American Legion Post

However, to be honest, it's been our experience that contacting the local  or county officials in some cases the county officials is, a waste of your time. Far more often than not, the local and county officials are not only aware of the problem but may be a party to it in some form.  A housing or commercial development will bring in more tax dollars than a cemetery.

Saving Graves recommends that you contact the State Attorney General's office.  You will want to explain the situation to them in some detail, and if at all possible, point out which state laws have been violated, and how. In the event that there is not an existing state law dealing with the issue in question, you may contact your local State Representative to have their office request the State Attorney General to issue an Official Opinion on the subject.


You have got to stir up public interest--it's the ONLY thing that politicians know. Because if the constituents don't seem to care, neither do the politicians. You cannot do too much to promote your cause. Do everything that you can think of to get the word out to those that might share your interests. The more people that know about it, the more people will let the politicians know that this is not acceptable to them and it needs to be stopped.

You will want to contact all the media -- Newspapers, TV, Radio, etc -- you can get contact information for, be it email or regular addresses. In general the media outlets are quite open to endangered cemetery stories as it will attract readers or viewers.   


If used correctly, the Internet can be a powerful tool in the effort to save your cemetery. There are numerous websites, newsgroups, mailing lists, etc that are of either a local nature or cemetery specific that can and will provide a huge amount of worldwide exposure to your issue. For example, lets say that you are trying to save the Wilson Family Cemetery located in Dekalb County, Tennessee. By contacting the following you can reach a number of people that may have a possible interest or connection to the cemetery:

    * GenFourm - http://www/
      Here you could post your information to the following fourms:
      Dekalb County, Tennessee
    * RootsWeb -
      RootsWeb provides numerous mailing lists and message boards where information could be provided on your cemetery reaching thousands of people daily.

These are just two suggestions, there are many other Internet resources that would welcome your information. Saving Graves is proud to be able to offer free Webspace to anyone wishing to place the information about their cemetery problem online. An example of the services that we can provide can be found at the following URL:

In a short span of just under three weeks, over 2,600 people visited this website. It was picked up be various local media and the community was informed of what was taking place.


If there are Revolutionary vets in the cemetery:

    * Daughters of the American Revolution
    * Sons of the American Revolution
    * You should also contact any and all local veterans groups.

If there are American Civil War vets in the cemetery:

    * Sons of Confederate Veterans
    * Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War
    * Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War

If there are Native American graves in the cemetery:

On Nov. 16, 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Comprising sections 3001 through 3015 of Volume 25 of the United States Code, NAGPRA was created in result to the concerns raised by Native American groups over the desecration of their sacred burial grounds and sacred objects. This law establishes a way for Native Americans to request the return of tribal human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and other objects having a central importance to a Tribe's culture that are held by federal agencies or federally funded museums or institutions. The Act also protects against the inadvertent discoveries of Native American sacred objects in that it requires a 30 day delay period after the discovery is made so that Native American groups have the opportunity to determine the appropriate action to take regarding the objects. You can learn more about NAGPRA by visiting

All NAGPRA business is conducted and made possible by federal funding from the National Park Service. Each tribe has appointed a primary NAGPRA contact, the role of which has also expanded to include daily communication with agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Park Service, various state and federal agencies including but not limited to historical societies, Bureau of Land Management, private sector construction/excavation companies, state archaeologists, Departments of Transportation, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Attorney General offices of various states.

Federal Agency Contacts for Implementation of The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

For further information on NAGPRA, contact Laura Mahoney, NAGPRA Consultant, National Park Service, Archaeology and Ethnology Program, 1849 C Street NW, NC340, Washington, DC, 20240; 202-343-8161 ext. 1095; or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The information contained within this website is website is provided as a public service and is submitted by it's users. Saving Graves makes no guarantee that the information is current or accurate. Readers should make every attempt to verify the information before acting on it.