Friday, 02 January 2009 14:03

Locating Unmarked Graves by Probing

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By Kristin J. Wilson, Physical Anthropologist/Archaeologist

Although you can identify many apparently unmarked graves simply by looking for rectangular depressions on the ground surface or for intentionally placed fieldstones, other historic burials are more difficult to locate. Most historic cemeteries contain unmarked graves. When development, improvements, additional interments, or even relocation, threatens a historic cemetery, it is important to find and document all existing graves to prevent accidental intrusion.

One of the most effective, minimally invasive methods for located unmarked graves is systematic probing. Historic sources tell us that pioneers used probing to locate existing interments before burying their loved ones in a family graveyard or rural cemetery. Probing detects softer areas where the ground has been disturbed. The surrounding, intact soil remains more compacted. Archaeologists have been using the method for the last 25 years or so to good effect. In fact, some states, like Georgia, have laws that require archaeologists to locate all graves and delineate the boundaries of historic cemeteries slated for development.

To probe for unmarked graves, you will need a metal probe measuring 3 to 3 ½ feet in length and 1/8 inch in diameter. It is best to use a probe fitted for replaceable steel tips since the tips wear out quickly. These items are available at environmental supply companies like Ben Meadows ( for under $30. Do not use longer probes or augers as they may penetrate the coffin chambers and contact human remains. Despite common belief, historic graves are rarely as deep as six feet.

Before starting, be sure to obtain permission to probe the cemetery from the appropriate authorities, such as church officials, city managers, or descendants of those interred. If possible, ask a qualified archaeologist to demonstrate the technique. Keep safety in mind, also. Wear sturdy shoes. Some people prefer to wear gloves or to pad the probe handle with foam pipe insulation to cushion the hands.

Since most historic graves are oriented east-west with the head to the west (reflecting the Christian belief that the dead will face the rising sun on Judgment Day), the probe transects should be oriented north-south to maximize the chances of locating a soil anomaly (possible grave shaft). Set up your starting positions beyond the boundaries of the cemetery or area that you wish to investigate.

Probe transects should not be more than three or four feet apart. Closer interval testing will reduce the chances of missing small child or infant graves. Push the probe into the ground at 6-12 inch intervals feeling for soft spots. It is helpful to probe known graves as well as areas where there are no graves to get a feel for the difference. When you encounter a soft area, probe around it and try to determine the shape of the anomaly. Round or oval areas are often rotted trees or rodent burrows. Rectangular east-west oriented graves are more likely graves. When you find a grave, find a way to mark that location. Metal spikes in the four corners of the grave work well, because they are easy to find later using metal detectors. Plastic flagging or string will often deteriorate, but they work well for temporary identification purposes.

Once you locate all the possible unmarked graves, put them on a map, or better yet, have a registered surveyor create a certified map. File the information with your local land records office so that those burial locations are not lost again.
Friday, 02 January 2009 14:01

Identifying Unmarked Graves

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Many times when visiting older cemeteries there will be indications of unmarked graves. These can be indicated by among other things, rectangular indentations in the ground.  There are a number of methods of determining the exact locations of these graves, including the following:

Ground Penetrating Radar (G.P.R.)
Ground penetrating radar surveys are useful for grave location. This method can locate the coffin, the person, objects buried with the person, or the burial trench into which the coffin or body was placed. Ground penetrating radar (GPR) is operated above the ground surface, and produces a cross-sectional image on the screen of the grave location that is underground. Unfortunately, badly decomposed bodies or those who are buried in wood coffins are extremely difficult to find. It is easier if bodies have things like belt or boot buckles.

Ground Scraping
You can scrape the soil down about one foot over the area you want to check and look for burial shafts. When the dirt is taken out and returned there is a color difference. 20 acres is a bit much for this technique.

Grave Dowsing
Dowsing, also known as rhabdomancy, divining, water witching, or doodlebugging, is an old practice of finding water or minerals by the means of a dowsing rod. A dowsing rod is traditionally a forked stick which is held firmly in one's hands in a way that allows the rod to swing up or down at the slightest impulse, supposedly indicating the presence of the sought-after material. The mechanism behind the detection is believed to depend on energy fields hitherto unknown to science. The hypothesis is that these energy fields are emitted by all objects at different frequencies and intensities. The origin of the practice is not clear, but the earliest sign of its usage dates from a 4500-5000 year old grave inscription in Brittany.

The subject of grave dowsing has been much discussed and Saving Graves chooses not to enter into the debate. However, we feel it may be of some help to offer the following points regarding the subject:

1. In virtually every case where someone who uses this method is asked to explain scientifically how the process works, they have no idea, but they know that it works for them.

2. Many people may not aware of the many Scientific studies and experiments, all of which disproves dowsing capabilities. In one such study conducted in 1986, University Physicists from the University of Munich and the Technical University of Munich in Munich Germany spent 400,000 German marks (about $250,000.00) testing the dowsing theory. The results provide the most convincing disproof imaginable that dowsers can do what they claim. In fact, the results showed that the dowsers would have done better had they left their rods at home and guessed in the experiments. For the complete story as published in the January 1999 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, see

For additional information on the subject, we recommend the following link:

Dowsing - Science or Humbug?
Saturday, 20 December 2008 15:26

Use of GPS in Locating a Cemetery or Gravesites

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The use of GPS provides one of the best means we currently have for preserving the locations of old abandoned graveyards.  


The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system made up of a network of 24 satellites placed into orbit by the U.S. Department of Defense, orbiting the earth about 12,000 miles above us. They are constantly moving, making two complete orbits in less than 24 hours. These satellites are travelling at speeds of roughly 7,000 miles an hour. GPS satellites are powered by solar energy. They have backup batteries onboard to keep them running in the event of a solar eclipse, when there's no solar power. Small rocket boosters on each satellite keep them flying in the correct path.  The satellite orbits are calculated to provide continuous global coverage; with all 24 satellites in operation, the necessary four satellites are in view of a GPS receiver 100% of the time. On average, eight satellites are present above the horizon at any given time.

Because GPS satellites can break down and their orbits are subject to drift, the Global Positioning System also includes a set of ground stations around the earth that monitor the satellites' operation and location. The ground stations relay information to a master ground station, which then sends updated information back to the satellites so that they can send more accurate signals to GPS receivers on earth.

GPS works in any weather conditions, anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day. The full constellation of 24 satellites was achieved in 1994. Each satellite weighs approximately 2,000 pounds and is about 17 feet across with the solar panels extended. transmitted power is less than 50 watts and they are built to last about 10 years. Replacements are constantly being built and launched into orbit. There are no subscription fees or setup charges to use GPS. 

The following websites offer 


The United States Department of Defense began work on the current GPS system early in the 1970's, when satellite technology made it feasible to provide the military with continous global coverage. The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978, and the system was declared fully operational in July of 1995. ln the 1980s, the government made the system available for civilian use. GPS works in any weather conditions, anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day. 

In 1996 the National Security Council published the following goals for the GPS system:

  • To strengthen and maintain national security.
  • To encourage acceptance and integration of GPS into peaceful civil, commercial and scientific applications worldwide.
  • To encourage private sector investment in and use of U.S. GPS technologies and services.
  • To promote safety and efficiency in transportation and other fields.
  • To promote international cooperation in using GPS for peaceful purposes.
  • To advance U.S. scientific and technical capabilities.

On March 29, 1996, a Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) was signed by President Clinton that described GPS as an international information utility. The PDD included the following directives:

  • The U.S. government will continue to operate, maintain and provide basic GPS signals worldwide, free of direct user fees.
  • The U.S. will advocate the acceptance of GPS and it's augmentations as a standard for use by initiating international discussions and agreement with Japan and Europe.

The United States government permits worldwide, continuous access to GPS signals, free of charge. And, since the GPS system became operational in 1995, the development of "civil, commercial and scientific applications" has proceeded at breakneck speed. The development of these applications in 2000 and beyond will be particularly exciting because the United States government has abandoned its policy of "Selective Availability." Under this policy, civilian users of GPS could only pinpoint their location to within about 100 meters (330 feet). As of May, 2000, however, civilian users can obtain the same accuracy as military GPS users. This means that all GPS applications will be able to pinpoint a location to within 20 meters (66 feet).

A full history of the GPS system can be found at the GPS History, Chronology & Budgets website located at (PDF)


GPS satellites circle the earth twice a day in a very precise orbit and transmit signal information to earth. GPS receivers take this information and use triangulation to calculate the user's exact location by the use of longitude and latitude information. Essentially, the GPS receiver compares the time a signal was transmitted by a satellite with the time it was received. The time difference tells the GPS receiver how far away the satellite is. Now, with measurements from a few more satellites, the receiver can determine the user's position and display it on the unit's electronic map. Today's GPS receivers are extremely accurate,  and they maintain strong locks, even in dense foliage or urban settings with tall buildings. Certain atmospheric factors and other sources of error can affect the accuracy of GPS receivers. GARMIN GPS receivers are accurate to within 15 meters on average. It should also be noted that the military places a random error in the signals so that civilian units are not as exact in pinpointing locations as the military units.

Latitude is measured as distance from the equator, given in degrees. Think of these latitude degrees or lines as "tomato slices" of the globe. The equator is assigned the value of 0o (read as "zero degrees") latitude. The north pole is assigned the value of 90o North latitude while the south pole sits at 90o South latitude. These north and south pole values establish the extreme limits of latitude.

Latitude has been used in establishing U.S. state boundaries. For example, the line that forms the southern border of Tennessee is the 35o North latitude line, Kansas' northern border is the 40o North latitude line, and Wyoming's northern border is the 45o North latitude line--or half the distance between the equator and the north pole. 

North latitude is also commonly referred to with a positive value while latitudes south of the equator are often referred with a negative value. Thus the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, could be approximated at 30o North latitude or simply + 30o latitude while the city of Durban in South Africa far south of the equator could be approximated at 30o South latitude or simply -30o latitude.

Longitude is measured as distance east or west from an imaginary line drawn from the north pole to the south through Greenwich, England (the home of the person who made up the system of longitude), given in degrees. Think of these degrees or lines like "orange quarters" of the globe. There are 180o (read as "one hundred eighty degrees") in either direction--east or west--of the line through Greenwich. At 180o the east and west longitude lines merge in the Pacific Ocean, forming another well-known line called the international date line.

Longitude lines have also been used in establishing U.S. state boundaries. For example, the western border of Nevada north of Carson City is the 120o West longitude line. The 94o West longitude line cuts right through Daviess County so all longitudes in the county will be very close to 94o West longitude.

Like latitude, longitude can be referred to with a positive or negative value instead of east or west. If longitude is positive, it is a place east of Greenwich; if longitude is negative, it is a place west of Greenwich. Therefore, all longitudes in the U.S. are west, or negative, longitudes.

By converging a latitude line (a horizonal line) with a longitude line (a vertical line), a unique and precise spot on the globe is located. Both latitudes and longitudes are further broken down into minutes and seconds. Each degree has from 0 to a maximum of 59 minutes and each minute has from 0 to a maximum of 59 seconds.

Some use UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) readings which is a grid coordinate system that gives you a position in specific zones. The GPS Device is a machine that sends and receives signals to and from the satellites in an effort to determine your current position. GPS devices were long used by boats and airplanes, but the technology has become so affordable, that consumers can now buy them for personal use. 

For Additional Information, please visit the following online GPS Tutorials:

  • All About GPS

    An animated tutorial on the basics of GPS from Trimble Navigation. The site also includes information on how Differential GPS works and the application of GPS to free flight avionics navigation.


The application of the GPS to a cemetery appears to be somewhat unique, though it differs very little from other consumer applications. By using a GPS device, you can stand in the middle of a cemetery, and it will determine the latitude and longitude coordinates, and even altitude if it has enough satellites tracked. It can store up to 500 locations in memory so that you can refer back to it later on. 

A sample listing for the Crosier Cemetery located in South Harbor, Minnesota would look like this:

Global Positioning System (GPS) Latitude/Longitude: 
46.07889 / -93.65333

Map Coordinates

A good example of the use of determining the boundaries of a cemetery can be found at the Jewish Cemetery in Rozhnyatov website located at:

Once you have this location for a grave or a cemetery, anyone can find it on a map. You can purchase a good GPS unit for between $100 to $200 dollars, some units will cost more. Your local such as Wal mart, Target, or Meijers will have them in the Sporting Goods section. The lower-end models will use a compass pointer to show you which way to go, along with the distance, your current traveling speed, and estimated time of arrival. Higher-end models include mapping data to provide a street map. Most all GPS devices will update its information every second.


Additional information on this subject can be found at:


Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) data is generated by the reflection of pulses of energy transmitted into the ground. The energy bounces off the buried features, and is detected with a receiving antenna. Each below-ground feature reflects this energy in its own unique way. Objects, and soils of different densities will generate detectable signals. By providing the user with the ability to “see” below the surface without disturbing anything, GPR is the ideal tool for locating sensitive features such as graves. 

Forensic geophysical surveys employing the use of shallow ground radar imaging technology have been utilized world wide for the detection of archaeological forensic targets for nearly 20 years . Forensic geophysical surveys can locate burial sites from ancient times up to recent burials based upon the disturbance of the ground conditions. It also can be useful also to sort out the location of empty but pre-sold burial sites through the use of GPR imagery techniques. Interpretation is conducted mainly in ‘live-time’ by a geophysicist or forensic archaeologist with interim reports presented ‘live-time’ as well as full reports depending upon the cemetery’s requirements.

GPS methods are non-destructive, preserving the cemetery and the graves for future generations.

Production rates will vary according to both ground and weather conditions but under normal conditions it is possible that up to 100 graves may be examined per day. 

Though GPR does not currently reveal details such as skeletons or coffins, it does show excavation features. In some cases,  the actual shafts of the burial were detected, while in other cases, only the near-surface soil truncation was detected.  By analyzing the slice-maps, it is possible to determine that some of the burials were interred on the east side of their headstone, while others were interred on the west side.  Some caskets were wooden with no metal, some were lead-lined, and others contained significant metal.  Furthermore, GPR was able to detect sometimes only slight void spaces caused by partial collapse of the coffin.

Additional Information and examples of use:


The use of Ariel Photography in documenting the size, number of graves, location of gravestones or even the existence of a cemetery is a seldom used method that can provide some amazing results. Here are some suggestions for obtaining and working with aerials...

First, use USGS or one of the online locators to get an approximate longitude/latitude for the area you are interested in. This will make the person who finally helps you have a much easier time in telling you what is available.

Half the time if you call the county their "information" desk won't have a clue what you are talking about. When you call ask for someone in the Engineering Department; if they can't get you pointed in the right direction ask them for the Public Works, Highway Division or someone in Building. Depending on how your county is set up, one of those places is going to have the aerial photographs. (In Pinellas Co FL it was Public Works section of Engineering).

Once you've finally tracked down the right department, ask them how many sets of maps they keep and what the dates on those sets. This can be VERY helpful if you are trying to locate a "lost" or overgrown cemetery. It may not show up on a 2000-2002 aerial, but if your county keeps dated sets, you may want the OLDEST set they have--your target may not have been overgrown then.

By looking at a series of aerial photos taken over a 20-30 year span of the same area, starting with the oldest and progressing to the newest, you might also see how someone else has encroached onto a cemetery or even devoured one either by slow encroachment or a "permitted" building project. In most cases you should be allowed to view the available maps and pick out any or all you wish to have copies made of. The copies are NOT that expensive to obtain--the high cost was in the original which your tax dollars already paid for.

Another hint that might come in handy is if some major project has been built in an area where you believe they may have removed or disturbed a cemetery, or is in the planning stages of being built, ask if it is possible to see the county permit submittals for the project (not the permit itself, but the information that was submitted to OBTAIN the permit for the project). In most states, these documents are public records and though the worker might be unwilling to show you the file, you often have the legal right to see it. Ask for a supervisor if your state law says you have a right to view public records and you are refused.

In most states they are also required to allow you copies of said plans or portions thereof for a nominal copying fee. These plans as submitted by the project engineer almost always contain an aerial photograph and design drawings providing information sometimes not provided to the public regarding the project (like that their parking lot is going to cover the old county poor house burial ground...)

One more quick tip on aerials--sometimes counties "purge" their extra copies and donate these sets to libraries. Check with the local history section of your public library--they may just have some dusty old books or rolls of old aerials stuffed away in a corner.

Acknowledgments: The above information provided by Susie Martin-Rott and published on the Old Bones CEMETERY-L Mailing List

For additional information:

Saturday, 20 December 2008 15:05

Saving A Cemetery - Prescribed Cemetery Burnings

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The Cemetery Advocacy Series Part Two

Pioneer cemeteries are often favorite spots for prairie enthusiasts to scout for prairie species that were protected among gravestones while the land around them was plowed and farmed. However, many years of neglect has resulted in cemeteries overgrown with daylilies, giant ragweed, and other vegetation.  Every year there are an unknown number of carefully planned, intentionally set prescribed fires (Ecological Management Burns) within historic pioneer cemeteries in an effort to manage the overgrowth problem. The use of fire to manage grasslands and other such horticulture as promoted by nature groups on both a state and national level is a relatively new management option. The Nature Conservancy defines a Ecological Management Burn as "burns conducted to meet stated ecological management or restoration objectives and goals, conducted when there is sufficient information available to be confident that fire will benefit priority species, communities, or landscapes, even though certain fire effects may not be well-documented or understood. Monitoring is required to gauge the attainment of management goals and to assess the need to modify the fire regime or undertake research. Ecological Management Burns are conducted primarily to manipulate vegetation and enhance the biological productivity and diversity of specific organisms or to accomplish specific objectives. These objectives may be either be broad (prairie restoration and maintenance) or narrow (management for endangered or rare species or reduction of woody plants) in nature. While controlled or prescribed burning may be a great tool for controlling weeds and promoting the growth of prairie plants, the use of such actions in cemeteries is at best questionable.

Most people involved in prescription burns within cemeteries when asked about possible damage to the gravestones will tell you that they have never observed any damage to the stones. One person from Iowa in response to the question responded "We have been burning cemeteries since 1988 here in Crawford County. I have not noticed any damage to the head stones in our program" and "you will have ashes laying on the top of the stones but once it rains they are gone. The fire moves so fast that the heat does not seem to build up on the stones". These statements define exactly the problems we are facing. While they may be able to determine the exact effects of the fire on the vegetation, most, in not all persons conducting prescribed burning within a cemetery are in no way qualified to determine what if any damage is being caused. Simple observation by the naked eye to an untrained observer cannot qualify as and must not be accepted as an informed opinion.

Possible problems resulting from the result of prescribed burning in a cemetery include:

    * Heat from controlled burns may cause damage to adhesive joints fills with synthetic materials, lead wedges and mortar fills. Even while exposure of gravestones to heat is brief, heat causes chemical damages in these materials and they become unstable.
    * By-products of the burnt vegetation (carbon deposits and flying ash) are deposited into the surfaces of the stones, adding a layer that will hasten deterioration.
    * Rain, dew, and other forms of precipitation will drive particular matter from the burn into the stones pores and cracks, speeding up deterioration. Precipitation will also hasten deterioration of the restoration materials previously damaged by the heat.
    * In cases where there may have been previous repair work, restoration dowels in broken monuments, particularly those that are situated close to the ground, are at risk of expanding under influence of heat, thereby possibly shattering fragile stones.

Dr. Ted Nield, Science & Communications Officer, Geological Society of London, studied Geology at University College Swansea, and University College Cardiff. After gaining his PhD he became a consultant carbonate sedimentologist. He confirms that burning vegetation would pose a significant danger to most, if not all gravestones.

"While the fire would blacken the stones and render them illegible and disfigure their natural stone colour, the heat would have very much more serious effects. Moisture in the pore spaces of many rocks used for gravestones would boil off and cause the stone to lose surface detail (which would be exploded off), further affecting legibility. Expansion and contraction caused by the heat could also easily cause surface layers to spall off, and can even crack stones completely. Oddly, the thicker and more sturdy looking the stone, the more likely this is to happen because the higher temperature gradients would set up massive forces through relative expansion and contraction across the greater thickness. Limestone gravestones would suffer from all of these effects, but would be worse affected still by the calcining effect of heat. An intense fire would disrupt the chemical bonds present in the complex carbonates that make up limestones, and would tend to turn the material into quicklime. This then dissolves in rainwater with the release of great heat, causing further degradation".

Battalion Chief Jim Smith of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection presented a paper at the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Society for California Archaeology held in Sacramento in April 1999 entitled "Protecting Archaeological Sites With Prescribed Fire". While an advocate of prescribed burns he did make the statement "If the site contains significant features like rock art, special measures can be taken. Use of aluminum fire blankets to shield the art from the effects of smoke and heat may be needed".

According to the history of the Elsinore Valley Cemetery (18170 Collier Ave, Lake Elsinore, CA 92530) :"During the early years the cemetery ground was bare except for weeds. They grew so high that burning was used for their control. This caused damage to the trees and also the marble, wood, and limestone gravemarkers, so the burning was discontinued."

Government officials in County Kildare, Ireland seem to feel that burning in a cemetery is a problem as they address the issue in their cemetery maintenance policy. In the section on cleaning they state "Burning or chemical killing of weeds should not be undertaken as these tend to encourage a rigorous secondary growth of nettles and weeds and may also cause damage to headstones". They continue  in the section on Trees and Shrubbery  "None of the debris gathered in this way should be burned within the graveyard boundary, as this will cause damage to grave markers and/or stonework".

While as a rule these fires are closely monitored, they have been know to got out of control.  On December 10, 2002 the Scotland County Fire Department responded to a grassfire north of Memphis. A controlled burn near the Mt. Olive Cemetery, which is located just south of the Iowa line, had gotten out of control and spread into some adjoining brush as well as a shelled corn field. The department was able to quickly bring the fire under control and was on the scene for approximately 30 minutes extinguishing hot spots in the brush. The fire destroyed an estimated three acres of grass. Eight firemen responded to the call taking four fire trucks to the scene.

Prescribed Fires

In general there are two distinct types of cemetery burning. The first, where vegetation is first cleared and then placed in piles away from the gravestones to be burned, is not at issue here, although it goes without saying that if the cemetery contains wooden grave markers, or markers whose composition is unknown, there should be no attempt at burning anywhere in the vicinity. There have been many documented cases where a caretaker accidentally destroyed all or most of the old wooden markers when he was burning off dead grass or other overgrowth. Wooden markers that have been whitewashed, or have blackened with age, may be mistaken for stone or bronze, their true nature remaining undiscovered until after they have been damaged. The composition of all markers should be conclusively determined before beginning any sort of restoration work or cleanup.

This article will focus on the second type of controlled burning. The sole purpose of controlled burning within a cemetery is for maintaining native vegetation and wildflowers. Usually these controlled fires are being used to maintain neighboring areas, but spread into cemeteries, known or unsuspected, that lie along their paths. The effect of such repeated controlled burns on markers, monuments, and other identifying features of a cemetery has not been considered, and the possibility of cumulative damage needs to be seriously addressed.

The State of California has defined prescribed burning as follows; "A prescribed burn is an intentionally set fire, in a wild land setting.  Prescribed burns, also known as controlled burns, are widely used to manage ecosystems, since they aid in: restoration and maintenance of biological diversity, forest regeneration, forage production for wildlife, timber stand improvement, and wildfire hazard reduction". According to the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, there are three basic kinds of prescribed fires:

    * Backing fires. Backing fires burn into the wind. Fire is started along a prepared base line, such as a road, plowed line, stream, wetland, or other barrier, and allowed to burn into the wind.  Backing fires are generally the easiest way to burn. Flame lengths are shorter, rate of fire spread is slow, and smoke density is generally less than in head or flank fires. Backing fires burn hotter at the ground surface and do a better job of total fuel consumption than head or flank fires.
    * Head fires. Head fires burn with the wind. They have greater flame lengths, faster rates of spread, greater smoke volumes, and burn cooler at the ground surface than backing fires or flank fires. Because head fires burn faster than other kinds of fires, containment becomes more critical as wind speed and fuel quantity increase.
    * Flank fires. Flank fires burn at oblique angles to the wind direction. They are a modification of backing fires in that lines of fires are set to burn into the wind but at angles to the wind direction. Flank fires are often used to secure the flanks of a head fire as the head fire progresses. This method of firing can stand little variation in wind direction and needs expert crew coordination and timing.

Some experts tell us that a single burn may actually increase the problem of woody plant invasion. Using fire once is not very helpful. It must be used repeatedly in a planned strategy to be effective.

Prescribed Fire Movement Speeds

A well-controlled head-fire , in recommended weather conditions, will move forward at a rate of about 1.7 - 16.5 feet per minute. In relatively moist conditions and low wind speeds the rate of spread will be at the lower end of this range while in dry conditions and relatively strong winds rates of spread towards the upper end of the range will be encountered. Rates of spread of 3  - 5 feet per minute are about average. Rates if spread of up to 26 feet per minute may be encountered with head-fires in heavier, drier fuels or relatively high wind speeds. Rates of spread can be much greater when the weather and fuel conditions are outside the recommended limits, and wildfires can move at speeds of 30 feet per minute or more. Back-fires spread much more slowly, normally at between 1.7 - 2.5 feet per minute. Smoldering grassland fires move very much more slowly.


Effects Of Prescribed Fire Temperature On Gravestones

When the temperature of a potential fuel is raised by heating, its chemical constituents are broken down into more volatile and flammable substances. In the presence of oxygen these undergo further vigorous chemical reactions, accompanied by the production of heat and, usually, the presence of visible flames. Once a critical temperature is passed more heat is generated than is absorbed and self-sustaining combustion begins. This is the point of ignition. For most plant fuels the critical temperature for ignition is just above 300.ºC. The hot gases produced during combustion cool rapidly outside the flames, the cooling effect increasing with increasing speed of the wind. Flame size and fire intensity are closely related, with fire intensity increasing in proportion to the square of the flame length - a doubling in flame length indicates a fourfold increase in the rate of heat production by the fire. As well as volatile compounds, charcoal (or char) is also produced. This is largely composed of carbon. The decomposition of the fuel to char or to volatile gases can be competing processes. Char is produced at lower temperatures than volatiles and its production is enhanced if the fuel has a high mineral, or ash, content. This is the basis of action of many chemical fire retardants. It is possible for char to burn by 'glowing' combustion or smoldering. This occurs at the surface of the solid fuel and is less intense than flaming combustion. It requires less oxygen (only about a third as much) and so can occur in more densely packed fuels. In woodland management fires, the fuel that is not completely burnt by the flames generally cools so rapidly that glowing combustion is sustained for no more than a few minutes. However, a smoldering grass surface is less exposed to heat loss and glowing combustion may continue for extended periods.

The variety of stone materials are already weathering at different rates as a result of normal climate changes.  It follows then that artificially induced severe temperatures and the accelerated rate of temperature change coupled with any chemical residues of burned material may hasten deterioration.  According to Shelley Sass, an Architectural Conservator
for the Sass Conservation of Yonkers, NY, there is documented evidence of stone damage from fires where the heat was 1600 degrees F that confirm high temperatures are extremely and immediately damaging to most stones. It would not be outside of the bounds of reason to suspect that controlled burns have a lower temperature ( some research indicates recorded grassland fire temperatures as high as  600 to 700 degrees F range), depending on the nature of the plant material. In the case of grassland fires research has proven that the hottest temperatures were recorded at about 15 cm above ground in a headfire and at about 5 cm above the ground in a backfire.  Temperatures also may be influenced by the use of any accelerant, the quality of the accelerant, the quantity used and how is it used.  However, longer exposure to lower levels of heat can damage both stones and repair materials, at least on a microscopic level, due to the stress exerted by differential thermal expansion, as two unlike materials react to temperature changes differently. This type of damage often is not immediately evident, but will become visible only after the first (or several) freeze/thaw seasons. If it is possible to ascertain the average temperature range and duration for a burn, it should be easy to predict the type of damage the gravestones in these cemeteries would sustain.

According to The Scottish Executive, two of the most important factors affecting ease of ignition are moisture content of the fuel and its starting temperature. Burning in the winter half of the year, when conditions are cool and not too dry, greatly reduces the risk of very intense and uncontrollable fires. If the potential fuel is cold it will take more heat to raise it to the critical temperature.

Even more important than temperature is the moisture content of the potential fuel. This is because water requires unusually large amounts of heat to raise its temperature, and to change from liquid to vapour. If there is a lot of water present it will be difficult to reach the critical temperature for sustained combustion. Until the water is entirely evaporated, at least from the surface layers of fuel, the temperature will not rise above 100 ºC and a fire will not ignite.

Fresh green foliage of deciduous plants often has such a high moisture content (up to 300% or more of dry weight) that it is very difficult to ignite. Evergreens, like heather or conifers, often have somewhat lower moisture contents, and a higher content of volatile resins, waxes, oils and similar compounds, and will burn more readily. The amount of heather present in moorland vegetation is often a principal determinant of the temperature and intensity of a fire. Normally, there is considerable variation in moisture content within the vegetation. The layer of plant litter, mosses and lichens under the heather may have a moisture content of 200 - 300 % while loose plant litter supported among the shoots of the heather canopy may have a moisture content of only 25%. The moisture content of the heather canopy is likely to be in the range 50% - 100% during the muirburn season. On dry, well-drained ground, moisture contents of the vegetation and litter may become less than 50%.

Dead plant material dries out more quickly and fully than living material, burns even more readily, and often initially carries the fire. The moisture content of dead grass leaves can change from 90% to 20% in less than half an hour under drying conditions. The dead leaf litter from purple moor-grass is one of the first fuels on moorlands to dry out, other than when it forms a compact, damp mat in close contact with the ground. Decomposition of plant litter is often slow on moorlands, significant amounts of dead plant material can accumulate, and this can greatly affect the intensity and rate of spread of fires.

The amount of heat required to dry the fuel is generally a small proportion of the heat released once a fire is self-sustaining. Therefore, much more water is needed to put out a fire, once started, than is required to prevent a fire starting in the first place.

Indiana - The DNR and The Nature Conservancy

Bundy Cemetery, Stony Creek Township, Henry County, Indiana

Currently the Indiana DNR in Cooperative Agreement with The Nature Conservancy conducts controlled burns over remnant prairie plants on properties for which they are responsible. Some of these properties contain historic pioneer cemeteries. During 2002 prescribed fire was carried out on 625 acres at 16 sites by the Indiana DNR - Division of Nature Preserves along with assistance from other DNR divisions, private conservation groups and volunteers. An additional 4 burns totaling 38 acres were conducted by private contractors.  According to John Bacone, Division Director, DNR - Division of Nature Preserves the following cemeteries are DNR managed:


Cemetery Township County Nature Preserve Notes
Morgan Cemetery Cass LaPorte   DNR manages only the back portion, where there are no burials
Ruppert Cemetery Logan Fountain   DNR manages this cemetery to preserve the original prairie and two state endangered plants
Smith Cemetery Highland Vermillion   This cemetery is a state-dedicated nature preserve, managed to preserve the original prairie and an endangered plant and animal
St. Mary's Cemetery Fairfield Tippecanoe   DNR manages the north portion, where there are no burials. In this case, the cemetery traded this land to The Nature Conservancy for additional acreage, so it is no longer an official part of the cemetery
St. John's Lutheran Cemetery   Harrison   A compromise was worked out where the cemetery is mowed in the fall, at a level of about six inches, and is only burned once every three years or so, after it has been mowed.

In addition one or two land trusts have agreements with several of the trustees to manage a few other pioneer prairie cemeteries in an effort to keep the original vegetation from disappearing from the entire county.

The members of the Indiana Pioneer Cemeteries Restoration Project (INPCRP) are concerned about the potential damage these burns may cause to tombstones. They note that the stones turn a smoky gray color after the burn and are concerned about the effects the burns might have on epoxies, lead wedges, and mortars. The official DNR opinion is that the burn is quick and does not harm the tombstones. However visually looking at the stones over a period of time is not a study, (Arlindo Begonha in his 1997 PhD thesis presented at University of Minho, states that some scientific studies of the decay in granitic monuments included the use of optical microscopy, X-ray diffraction, scanning electron microscopy, infrared spectrophotometry, ionic chromatography, and plasma and atomic absorption spectrometry tests were used in order to characterize mineralogically and chemically the fresh and weathered rock as well as the stone pathologies in the monuments) unless the degree of knowledge of the preexisting condition of particular stones is within the scope of the knowledge of the person/persons conducting the burn, or affiliated with them, and they can certify no damage has occurred.

To the outside observer, it would appear that that the parent agency, DNR, with its keen interest in the survival of native vegetation, is perhaps trumping the real concern by many for the welfare of the pioneer cemeteries that are being subjected to burning. Without question the folks who work within the DHPA are concerned with all of Indiana's cultural heritage which would of course include Indiana's pioneers and their cemeteries. It may not, however, be within their power to simply overrule decisions from above even if they were to concur that cemetery burnings are adverse. The end result may be that there are at least two elements within the same bureaucracy that have differing opinions when the preservation of cultural and natural resources are at odds as they seem to be in this case.

In the spring of 2003 Henry County, Indiana legislators met with the Henry County Cemetery Commission to better understand some of the problems and issues with Indiana Pioneer Cemeteries. The Henry County Cemetery Commission was assured that these issues would be explored further in 2003 Interim Study Committees at the Indiana statehouse. In June,  2003 cemetery law issues were assigned to County Government Study Commission. The first public
hearing was held on July 31st before the study committee, and a number of concerned persons from throughout the state presented information on problems involving current legislation on pioneer cemeteries. Among the  items addressed were cemeteries located in “Prairie Grass Restoration” areas and controlled burning in cemeteries. The next Study Committee Hearing is scheduled for Sept. 3rd, 2003 at 10:30 am in room 431 at the Indiana Statehouse.

Prescribed Burning Data Recording

On the subject of prescribed burning there is a wealth of recorded data covering not only the fires themselves but the effects generated as a result of fire. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service maintains the Fire Effects Information System database containing extensive data concerning the effects of fire on Vegetation and Wildlife.

Groups such as The Nature Conservancy that are involved in prescribed burning have clear rules and regulations defined in a fire management manual that must be followed. In order to conduct a prescribed burn there is specific data that must be included in a written prescribed-burning plan that must be recorded for every burn.  At the beginning of the prescribed burn, record wind speed and direction, fuel moisture, humidity, burning index, temperature, days since and amount of last rain, and dampness of soil and lower litter. Also record fire behavior data such as type of fire used, length of flames, and forward rate of spread. Continue to record applicable weather and fire-behavior parameters at 2- to 3-hour intervals throughout the burn. After the burn, record amount of crown scorch, consumption of brush, litter; and duff, and any other evidence of fire intensity such as unburned areas, exposed mineral soil, and cracks in bark or cupping on the lower bole due to bark consumption. Also should be included is a short narrative on success of the burn. Some instructions instruct the person preparing the plan to "Give instructions for the protection of sensitive areas" and to "consider historical and archeological sites". However they do not offer any specific guidelines to be followed in this consideration.  Saving Graves feels that the same data reporting as it relates to cemeteries within a prescribed burn area should be required. With that in mind, we support the development of the following plan.

Building A Database

The first step that needs to be taken is the development of a database or a master index of cemeteries that are previously or currently a part of a prescribed burn program. Currently there only a very few known cemeteries that are part of a burn program; however there are strong indications that the actual numbers may be quite high. Before we can gather a clear understanding of the problem we must be able to determine how widespread it is. The database should contain the following information broken down, first by state, then by county:

    * A listing of all known prescribed burn cemeteries.
    * The dates of all previous burns and scheduled future burns.
    * A copy of the Monitoring Report for each burn.
    * A photographic record (before, during and after) of each and every burn within a specific cemetery.
    * A listing of all trained monitors for that specific area.

Training Monitors

There must be trained observers present before, during, and after each burn to examine the stones microscopically and submit their own independent reports. The purpose of training is to provide resource specialists with the necessary skills for implementing projects and collecting reliable, unbiased, and consistent data. Examiners should understand data collection, documentation, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation procedures, including the need for uniformity, accuracy, and reliable monitoring data.

Training should occur in the field by qualified personnel to ensure that examiners are familiar with the equipment and supplies and that detailed procedural instructions are thoroughly demonstrated and understood. As a follow-up to the training, data collected should be examined early in the project to ensure that the data are properly collected and recorded.

The Monitoring Plan

If we are to understand the possible effects of a prescribed burn on a cemetery there must be a monitoring plan that explains the rationale for the monitoring project, documents the goals and objectives, and describes the monitoring methodology in enough detail to direct continued implementation. Monitoring plans serve five important functions:

    * A plan provides a full description of the problem, the objectives, and the proposed methodology.
    * Draft monitoring plans provide a means to solicit input from many participants.
    * A final monitoring plan consolidates all information into a single document that can be easily accessed and referenced.
    * A final monitoring plan documents the location and techniques of the monitoring in sufficient detail that a successor can continue the monitoring.
    * A final monitoring plan documents the commitment to implementing a monitoring project and the management that will occur based on monitoring results. A monitoring plan can also be signed by all participants to demonstrate their support for the project and acceptance of the proposed management changes that may result.

In order for us to obtain a full understanding of the possible effects on the prescribed burn on the gravestones the monitoring reports should include at a minimum the following:

General Conditions

    * Air temperature at the time of the burn. Are the stones cold when the quick heat from the fire hits them)
    * Temperature at varying places in the cemetery at varying heights (ground level, middle, and extreme heat at the
      crest of the fire near the top of the stones) and density (the grass, weeds, and wildflowers are thicker in places, causing hotter temperatures as they burn) during the burning.
    * Average height of the grass, weeds, or wildflowers.
    * Atmospheric humidity at the time of burning.
    * General weather conditions for a period of time leading up to the burn. Since these stones are porous there is more risk of damage if they're moist from rain than if it's been dry for a while.
    * Before, during and after burn photographs.
    * The date and time of day of the burn.

Gravestone Conditions

    * Moisture content in the stones at the time of the burn.
    * Type of material the stones are composed of.
    * Age of the stones (if can be determined by dates).
    * General condition of the stones, including examination of each stone for weak, cracked, or flaking areas.
    * The temperature of the surface of the stone before, during and after the burn.
    * Vegetative growth on or in the stone itself, such as moss, lichens, or seedlings, that may cause the fire to focus more intently on certain points on the stone itself as they burn away.

Evaluation post fire:

    * Effects should be measured at various reference points after the fire. Permanent photo-points might help with this.

Collecting this information should give us an indication of the effects to a gravestone caused by controlled burning. Is it enough to cause a failure? As of now, no one really knows for sure. One thing that we do know is that The Nature Conservancy or the DNR are not qualified in the field of gravestone repair or restoration. They cannot make an educated judgment as to the effects of a controlled burn on gravestones and we should not rely on them to tell us that it is ok. Currently our lack of information on which to base our decisions and actions is deplorable.

Scientific monitoring requires an investment of time and money with returns from this investment sometime in the future usually accruing to people not making the original investment.  It is not simple.  It does not always accomplish what is needed, because of cost, procedure or system design flaws.  In many cases it is often difficult to determine or agree upon what to monitor. The monitoring and evaluation process is not easy, but if we are to attempt to discover a definitive answer to the question of the effect of controlled burning within a cemetery it must be an integral part of the process. The only way to understand what we are doing is through systematic scientific monitoring on a regular basis.

Alternatives to Burning

While prescribed burning within a cemetery is clearly an area of many unanswered questions, it does seem logical that the fields of cemetery preservation and nature conservation can and should work closely together in achieving their respective goals. In January of 1997, the California Native Plant Society started a project that would transform the Old City Cemetery in Sacramento into the California Native Plant Demonstration Garden.  The goal of the project is to enlighten visitors to the beauty of California native plants, illustrate how they can be used in the home garden, show how to attract wildlife and beneficial insects, and educate about the many medicinal, cultural and edible aspects used by the local Native Americans. At the same time, the group played a major role in the restoration and preservation of a valuable historic community resource, the formerly neglected Old City Cemetery. Information on the ongoing project can be found at  You must keep in mind that one of the reasons that this project works is that it is set in a urban environment. It is quite likely that a similar project in a rural environment  may not archive the same degree of success.

There are also examples of cemetery and nature preservation groups working hand-in-hand to achieve their goals. In the United Kingdom The Garden History Society, who list among their objectives to promote the protection and conservation of historic parks, gardens and designed landscapes, and to advise on their restoration, works closely with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The Commission was established by Royal Charter in 1917. Its duties are to mark and maintain the graves of the members of the forces of the Commonwealth who were killed in the two World Wars, to build memorials to those who have no known grave and to keep records and registers, including, after the Second World War, a record of the Civilian War Dead.

A Final Thought

A cemetery must be the object of special care in order to safeguard its integrity and ensure that it is cleaned and presented in a seemly manner. The work of cemetery conservation and restoration is a highly specialized operation and should be inspired by the the highest principles. Its aim is to preserve and reveal the aesthetic value of the specific gravestone and overall historic value of the cemetery. When there is any doubt as to the potential effect of any method, one must err on the side of caution. If the benefits of an action are unknown, clearly at the same time one can't be certain one is not causing harm. One person who was interviewed for this article told us that he burned many prairie cemetery and never once saw a tombstone damaged. When further questioned he admitted that he had no supporting data for his statement and that "Much research has been done on grass fire temperature but none that I know relating to tombstones". The Venice Charter, the international charter for the conservation and restoration of monuments and sites states in Article 2. "The conservation and restoration of monuments must have recourse to all the sciences and techniques which can contribute to the study and safeguarding of the architectural heritage".

Applying the best available science to the potential threat of prescribed fire while at the same time supporting the best practices for preservation and restoration at cemeteries is vital. While we have some good indications, the lack of scientific information on the effect of fire to historic gravestones is a critical barrier to taking appropriate action. Currently is impossible to determine the potential damage caused to a cemetery by a prescribed burning program. Saving Graves is prepared to take the initiative and lead the way in working with partners around the world to identify, prioritize and address gaps in this knowledge so that we can have a clear understanding and resolution to this question.
Saturday, 20 December 2008 14:58

Saving A Cemetery - Getting Started

Written by
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.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008 10:15

Cleaning a Gravestone

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Cleaning Gravestones can prove to be a tedious and difficult job, however with the right knowledge and materials it is possible.


  • Soft-bristle brush
    Metallic brushes are entirely too harsh, and they also leave particles on the surface of the stone that can rust. 
  • Small, soft, slanted paintbrush - To clean debris and critters out of lettering or carvings
  • At least one large sponge
  • Water
    You may also want to bring a small spray bottle of water for gently cleaning dirt and debris from the stone. The spray bottle, should contain only water
    and not detergent or chemicals of any kind that would  damage and further erode the stone's material. You might want to use Photo Flo, a neutral PH detergent which  is made by Kodak and used in photo developing.  It will clean the stone without affecting the chemical balance of the stone. Mix one capfull per gallon of water. A 2 gallon garden spray bottle can normally do several stones if used properly. Wash stone with solution, then rinse stone with clean water. Use brush
  • Towel or old rags
    Used to kneel on or clean polished granite stones. Launder them first, but do NOT use fabric softener. The softener will affect their ability to absorb liquids as well as cutting down on the "magnetism" for dirt and dust.
  • Hand cleaner
    Bring along a sample size of antibacterial waterless hand cleaners or wipes.
  • Cutting Tool - Hand-held grass clippers,  scissors or a retractable razor knife for trimming grass and/or weeds close to the stones. Do NOT use weed whacker type trimmers as these  can scar the stones. For site clearing/cleaning, a pair of pruning shears or hedge clippers is also helpful for brush that is too thick to rip out or cut with grass clippers, but not thick enough to bother with a chain saw.
  • Pencil and Notepad to record information about the stone or cemetery location.

In addition, you will want to also look at taking along the following safety items:

  • Drinking water - plan to bring at least several quarts of water with you for drinking , apart from the water you use for washing the stones.
  • Sunscreen
  • Gloves - Both work gloves and rubber gloves.
  • Work Boots
  • Long-sleeved shirt
  • Insect repellant 
  • First Aid kit
  • Snakebite kit
  • Bee and wasp spray
  • Cellular phone
  • Safety goggles
  • Antibacterial liquid soap and or waterless instant hand sanitizer 
  • Protective hand lotion 
  • IvyBlock (for poison ivy, oak and sumac)


  • Before you attempt to remove a stain, it is extremely important to know what has caused it. If you don't know, it is highly recommended that you consult a stone specialist
  • Avoid using chemicals of any kind until you know which chemical cleaner to use. Certain chemicals will react with the spilled material, and could make the stain permanent.

Removing stains from marble or granite can prove difficult. These stones are porous materials, and  If not thoroughly sealed they we be susceptible to staining. The only way a stain can be removed is to use a safe chemical that will pull it out of the stone and an absorbent material that will soak up the stain. This chemical absorbent-material combination is commonly referred to as a poultice.

Poultices are commonly powder or cloth materials that can be mixed with a chemical and placed on top of the stain. Refer to the table below for some of the more common poultice materials. Clays and diatomaceous earth are safe and readily available, but do not use whiting or clays containing iron with an acidic chemical; iron will react with the acid, and may cause rust staining. It is best to purchase powders that are designed specifically for stone and tile. Consult a stone restoration specialist or your stone supplier if in doubt.

Poultice materials:

Paper towels Cotton balls Gauze pads Clays such as attapulgite, kaolin, fuller's earth Talc Chalk (whiting) Sepiolite Diatomaceous earth Methyl cellulose Flour Saw dust How to apply a poultice

To apply a poultice, take the following steps:

1. Clean the stained area with water and stone soap. Remember to blot rather than wipe.

2. Pre-wet the stained area with a little water. Distilled water is recommended.

3. Refer to the chart and determine which chemical to use for the stain.

4. Mix the poultice material with the selected chemical. Mix until a thick peanut-butter paste consistency is obtained.

5. Apply the paste to the stained area, overlapping the stain by at least ¼ . Do not make the application too thick, or it will take a long time to dry.

6. Cover the paste with a plastic sandwich bag or food wrap. Tape the plastic using a low-contact tape.

7. Allow the paste to sit for 12–24 hours.

8. Remove the plastic cover and check to see if the paste has dried. If it has not, allow it to sit uncovered until thoroughly dry.

9. Once it is dry, remove the paste by scraping and rinse the area.

10. Examine the stain. If it still remains, but is somewhat lighter, re-poultice until it is gone. If the stain refuses to disappear completely, it is time to give up, replace the tile or call a stone specialist.

Stain removal can be very difficult, and care must be taken when using a poultice.

(The above information from The National Training Center for Stone and Masonry Trades)


  • Practice on a rock at home, or check with a local monuments store to see if you can practice on one of their tombstones, before going to the cemetery.
  • In the case of cemeteries located on private property, remember that you are doing rubbings on someone else's property. It is ALWAYS advised to gain permission by attempting to  speak with the property owner, and explain want you want to do,  BEFORE you begin.  If you do not get permission, please respect the wishes of the cemetery and ask if you can take a photograph to record the information and condition of the stone. If you find that a gravestone is severely damaged, please notify the property owner or supervisor of the cemetery.


  • Before starting, all surfaces of the stone should be checked. If there is any question as to the stone's condition, do not attempt to clean it, as the surface could be irreparably damaged in the process.
  • Start with a test patch of your proposed cleaning technique on an area of the structure that is least visible.
  • The stone surface should be thoroughly pre-soaked with water. 
  • Thoroughly wash with plain water the pre-wetted stone with natural, soft bristled (natural or nylon), wooden-handled brushes of various sizes. The use of plastic handles is not recommended, as colors from the handles may leave material on the stone that will be very difficult to remove. Wire brushes, metal instruments and abrasive pads may give you instant satisfaction but, if you clean with anything that is harder than the stone, you risk scratching the face of the stone and causing more damage in the long run. Be thorough. Wash all surfaces. Scrub the stone from the bottom up to avoid further streaking and staining. Always watch carefully to make sure that none of the stone’s surface is eroding as you scrub. Rinse thoroughly, with lots of clean water.   
  • Keep the stone wet at all times; really wet. Where a garden hose is not available, be sure to bring plenty of jugs of water and keep dousing the stone as you work and, most importantly, flush the stone well when done.   
  • Remove bird droppings, dirt moss, lichen etc. from the stone if possible. This will insure clear and sharp copy. If lichen is a problem, you can scrape with a wooden or plastic scraper. Tongue blades or craft sticks work well. Also, inexpensive plastic putty scrapers from home stores work well. Remember, no metal. If you have any trouble getting any of these materials off the stone, STOP and be sure that you do not cause any damage the stone in your attempt to clean it.
  • If used, do not allow detergent solutions to dry on the stone while cleaning.
  • Some stains in porous stones cannot be removed. Do not expect the stones to appear new after cleaning.
  • Do not clean marble, limestone, or sandstone more than once every 18 months. These types of stone may occasionally be rinsed with clean water to remove bird droppings and other accretions. Granite can be cleaned as needed.


  • Keep a record of the cleaning, including date of cleaning, materials used and any change in condition since last cleaning (such as missing parts, graffiti, and other damage). These records should be kept at a central location where the condition of the stone can be monitored over time. Saving Graves will be happy to store this information as a part of a cemetery protection association listing.
Wednesday, 17 September 2008 10:07

The Use of Sealants on a Gravestone

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Even though a gravestone may be made up of materials like those found in the exteriors or interiors of building (i.e. marble, granite, or other stone), the same techniques that would be used to clean and protect the building cannot be used in the cemetery. Unlike buildings, gravestones are also exposed on all sides to the environment and must be able to allow air and water pass through it. The introduction of a sealant to the stone will prevent this process and will cause later damaging effects to the stone. Keep in mind that in many cases the stone is in direct contact with the soil and anything in the ground can be wicked up into the stone. Sealing, waterproofing or coating the stone with any sealing process will inhibit it's natural ability to evaporate this moisture from inside the stone. This will result in new damage and expansion problems. The War Graves Commission once did some experiments on water proofing compounds and found that silicone treatments actually caused more damage than if the stone was left exposed. The silicone trapped water in the stone, and the frost blew off the surface.

While Saving Graves does not recommend the use any type of sealant, there  has recently been developed a number premium quality breathing type sealers which is claimed to not trap moisture within the stone and will not interfere with the natural self cleansing calcification process of stones such as limestone. However these sealants are quite new, expensive and in the opinion of Saving Graves additional testing is required before such a product could be recommended.

The Use of WD-40 as a Gravestone Sealant

There seems to be little information on the effects of the use of WD-40 on a gravestone outside of a comment on the final plans website recommending that on bronze markers after cleaning to spray the memorial with WD-40 to protect the finish. However given the fact that a bronze marker is an entire different ballgame from a stone marker it can safely be assumed that introducing this product to a stone surface would produce quite different results.

The "WD" in WD-40 stands for Water Displacer. It was designed to remove water from mechanical equipment but it was found to have some lubrication ability short term so they went down that road in marketing it. The first concern is that if a person wants to use WD-40 to seal the stone, then one must assume that they will not only clean the stone but also rinse the stone off before applying the WD-40. If that stone is wet when they apply the WD-40 then it will only serve to drive the rinse water and any leftover chemical deeper into the stone and trapping it there.

The second concern is that it has peen proven that WD-40 changes as it evaporates over time into a more "gummy" substance. Given the fact that the WD-40 is applied to the surface of the stone after cleaning as a sealant  one has to assume that there is no intent to wash it off.  This "gummy" substance on the surface of the stone could create something along the lines of a waterproof seal that could not only trap moisture within the stone, but could hamper the natural breathing process of the stone.

You also must take into account that what goes into making WD-40 is unknown to the general public it's next to impossible to say with 100% assurance what effects to the stone it may or may not have. With that in mind, Saving graves recommends to fall back to "when in doubt, err on the side of caution". Exercise common sense whenever using WD-40.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008 10:02

Building Replacement Markers

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The following suggestion for building an inexpensive grave marker comes from "Bonedigger" <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
1 Build a frame to hold the concrete in place until it cures. The form is made from 1"x 6" boards with plywood. Here is a description of the forms.
2 - 1x6x24" vertical sides 
2 - 1x6x18" horizontal sides
Place one of each lengths into a tee shape, square them and screw them together. The top of the tee is your base so turn it upside down and the top becomes the side of your floor of the form. Cut a piece of plywood 18x18" to tie the two tees together and your floor is finished. Use screws to tie the tees to the plywood floor. Don't use nails anywhere; you don't want to hammer anything to get the forms off when the concrete dries. Cut 2 pieces of plywood approximately 14"x18" for the front and back. this front is where you will stick your letters on. When ready screw them in place [after letters are glued on]. 4 more pieces of plywood finish the form. They will be about 14"x6" to be horizontal and vertical end caps for the ends of the tees. All these are screwed into place. Leave the top open to pour in the concrete mix.

2 Cut out letters and numbers.

3 Glue the numbers inside the form you built in 1.above. There is a gotcha here! Glue the letters as if you were looking thru the wood to the letters. In other words the glue goes on the front of the letters not on the back as you would normally glue on stuff. Use the kind of glue that you set floor tiles with for two reasons a] it holds firmly until the concrete is poured b] it releases as soon as the concrete is cured but the impressions are lasting and as deep as the thickness that you made the letters. Imagine for a minute that the front of the form is glass and you are looking thru the glass to the interior of the form what you see is the writing you want to put on the marker just as you want to read it. Keep this thought in mind as you are gluing the letters in place.

4 When you have the form made and letters glued into place [glue has set] take a paint brush and spread oil, about a 30 weight heavy oil all over the letters and front side inside of the form so the concrete will not stick to the letters or to the front side of the form. If desired oil the whole inside for ease of operations.

5 Mix the concrete a little wetter than you would normally pour a sidewalk then pour it and let the concrete cure for several days probably 3 or more days is best. then remove the form and voila you have a tombstone with proper looking message that will last until some idiot decides to break it with a sledge hammer or worse.

6 I put a little reinforcement in my concrete to make it more durable. i.e. two little pieces of pipe running top to bottom inside the form. Or you can use a little grill work e.g. wire mesh or any old steel or iron rods lying around will strengthen the concrete.

7 There are many variations you can choose. I cut out the letters on my scroll saw but a band saw will work. Probably you can talk a local friendly woodworker into making the letters free for you. They should be made from 3/8" thick plywood. Letters any thicker would probably be too hard to remove from your forms without damaging the image you want to leave impressed in the concrete.

This design is based upon 2 bags of concrete mix at approximately $2.00 each at 40 pounds each so the final marker weighs about 90 pounds.
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