Friday, April 24, 2009

Cemeteries and the National Register of Historic Places

I suspect that anyone who reads this blog is familiar with the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), but I’m going to give a brief overview before delving into the subject of NRHP eligibility for cemeteries.
The NRHP was created by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Under this act, the Park Service was charged with maintaining a register of properties of historic significance. All nominations are done through the state’s State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) except in cases of federal land/projects and/or tribal land. I’m not going to go into details of nomination; it can be a long process. For an actual nomination you might consider hiring a professional. However, if you’d rather go through the process yourself a good place to start is the National Register Fundamentals page on the NHRP website.

In this post I’m going to cover the criteria that determine if a cemetery is eligible for nomination to the National Register. Cemeteries are a category of sites that are specifically excluded from eligibility except in certain cases. This isn’t due to some sort of secret anti-cemetery cabal in the Park Service (at least, I’m pretty sure it isn’t…) – it’s due to the practical reason that cemeteries are normally well protected by state and local laws and have significant cultural, familial, and personal ties that can make objective analysis difficult. Let me go ahead and say – if your favorite cemetery isn’t eligible for the National Register don’t assume its doomed, odds are there are state and local laws that protect it to some degree (probably as much as being listed on the National Register does, anyway).

I’m going to be drawing my information from the National Register Bulletin #41: Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Cemeteries and Burial Places. and Listing a Property. I’ll condense a few key points from these bulletins, if you’re interested in nominating a cemetery check the links above for more information regarding this process.

Any property (cemetery or otherwise) nominated for the National Register must have maintained its historic integrity and must meet one of the four significance criteria:

Criterion A: Properties can be eligible for the National Register if they are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.

Criterion B: Properties may be eligible for the National Register if they are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past.

Criterion C: Properties may be eligible for the National Register if they embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.

Criterion D: Properties may be eligible for the National Register if they have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.


Further, there are special considerations that must be taken in to account, known as Criteria Considerations:

a. A religious property deriving primary significance from architectural or artistic distinction or historical importance; or
b. A building or structure removed from its original location but which is primarily significant for architectural value, or which is the surviving structure most importantly associated with a historic person or event; or
c. A birthplace or grave of a historical figure of outstanding importance if there is no appropriate site or building directly associated with his or her productive life; or
d. A cemetery which derives its primary importance from graves of persons of transcendent importance, from age, from distinctive design features, or from association with historic events; or
e. A reconstructed building when accurately executed in a suitable environment and presented in a dignified manner as part of a restoration master plan, and when no other building or structure with the same association has survived; or
f. A property primarily commemorative in intent if design, age, tradition, or symbolic value has invested it with its own exceptional significance; or
g. A property achieving significance within the past 50 years if it is of exceptional importance.


What does all that mean for a cemetery?

1. It must have historic integrity, with “historic” being generally defined as “greater than 50 years old” for the purposes of the NRHP. This means that if the cemetery has been moved it is probably no longer eligible. I say “probably” because there is some flexibility, for example, a cemetery established in 1720, with burials moved in 1770, and which continued in use for a significant period of time after the move could still be eligible. If the cemetery was moved in the last 50 years, however, it’s likely not eligible as it arguably has no historic integrity.
2. It must be significant, as defined by the 4 criteria: A, B, C, and D. In the case of a cemetery, Criteria D requires no additional special considerations and refers to a cemetery "having yielded or having the potential to yield important information in prehistory or history”. This if often interpreted as being archaeologically important, for example, a slave cemetery might yield information regarding the diet, health, and burial customs of a group with little written documentation; but it is not limited to only excavation, a study of material culture in the form of grave offerings visible on the surface could meet Criteria D. There’s a lot of room here, but to further meet this criteria generally there must be a research plan that lays out exactly what information the cemetery is likely to yield and how it will be recovered. Archaeological investigation does not automatically disqualify a site for listing, by the way.
Criterion A , B, and C require a little more documentation. Criterion A may seem a little confusing at first glance, but a classic example is a burial ground used for burial of dead soldiers during or immediately after the battle on a Civil War Battlefield. There are other examples that can meet this criteria, though, such as a cemetery dating to the early days of settlement of an area that was in use for a significant period. In such a case the cemetery could show changes in burial customs across a broad pattern of local history. The NRHP Bulletin #41 referenced above provides many other examples.
Criterion B is straightforward, with the exception that a burial or cemetery must meet Criterion Consideration c. Basically, the cemetery (or birthplace) must be the only surviving structure/site associated with the individual. The grave of William Faulkner, for example, would not be eligible under Consideration c because the house where he wrote many of his novels, Rowan Oak, is maintained as a National Register property. However, the grave might be eligible under other criteria. The main exception to this Consideration is if the grave is being nominated as part of a historic property – for example, if Faulkner were buried in the back yard of Rowan Oak, protection would be extended to the grave as part of the property’s nomination.
Criterion C covers architectural details, assemblages of distinctive markers, and similar attributes. Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans is an example of one that would qualify under Criterion C, as it represents a particular architectural style and contains the works of a locally known master designer. It would also need to meet Criterion Consideration d.

There’s a good bit more detail to the Criteria Considerations – I recommend you read NHRP Bulletin #41 in its entirety if you want to know more. It’s not the most entertaining read, but it does a good job of laying out the criteria and providing examples for each case.

There’s also a “shortcut” (although it’s not, really, the process is more work) in that if a cemetery is nominated as part of a National Historic District then the Criteria Consideration no longer apply, however, the requirements for nominating a district make the process more involved than a single property nomination and, as such, it’s way beyond the scope of this post!

Finally, like I mentioned earlier, don’t be afraid to talk to specialists. You can hire a specialist (archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, historic architect, etc depending on what you’re nominating) to do the entire process, or you could hire them as a consultant to do a specific part (identify the artistic and architecturally significant components of a cemetery). You are not required to be a professional to submit a nomination, however! If you are willing to put in the time and legwork to research a property and educate yourself on the process you can do the nomination yourself – any US citizen has the right to nominate a property. There are resources available to help you – check out the local SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office, remember), they may have resources available. Keep in mind that the SHPO are often very overworked – they wear many hats in a lot of cases, including state archaeologist, SHPO, and a host of others. In addition, they are not there to do the nomination for you, it’s not in their job description, I promise. They can point you in the right direction though. You can find a list of SHPO offices here.

There's a lot involved in making NRHP nominations, I've tried to cover the basics here. In a nutshell:

- if the cemetery is a small family plot it's less likely to be eligible, although not impossible. It might have an example of a rare marker, for example, which would give it stylistic significance.
- if the cemetery is modern, founded w/in the past 50 years, it's probably not eligible.
- if it's a larger cemetery in use for a long period, there's better odds of eligibility, as it may meet several criteria
- if it is attached to a NRHP eligible property it is automatically eligible, although check the special criteria for religious properties for churches and churchyards!

That’s a brief overview of the criteria that determine if a cemetery is eligible, I hope you found it helpful. One other resource you might consider if you are looking at nominating a cemetery is your local historical society and genealogical society. Between the two they can probably tell you if anybody of significant historical importance is buried there, the dates of the cemetery itself, and they may have contacts with professionals you can make use of. Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

Diane Wright said...

Wonderful story. I didn't know most of that. Thanks for sharing a very important piece of info!!