Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cemetery Relocations: What do you do with the evicted dead?

In the last post, I touched on the topic of cemetery relocations. This is something that doesn't seem to cross most people's mind unless they have relatives in a cemetery which is being relocated (or they're a cemetery researcher and/or work for a Cultural Resource Management firm). Usually a cemetery is relocated because it is endangered by natural forces (erosion, flooding, etc) or by construction of some sort. The reason for moving the cemetery is an important consideration in whether approval will be given. I'll talk about that a little later in this post though. The laws governing cemetery relocation vary by state, county, and even city so it's impossible to give a full overview here. Generally state laws govern cemetery relocation and protection, but there may be local county or city level ordinances as well. I'll try to outline the general process, but I'm not a lawyer nor do I have experience with cemetery relocations outside of North Carolina.

Generally, in order to relocate a cemetery, one must meet the state qualifications which often include archaeological training. For example, in North Carolina a cemetery can only be relocated under the supervision of a qualified archaeologist with a graduate degree and experience or a funeral director. There are numerous Cultural Resource Management (CRM) companies that provide cemetery mapping, surveying, and relocation services. The first steps include researching the history of the cemetery and notifying family members. Usually notification is done through the local media, including newspapers and television. You can see an example of a notice here. If there are no objections to the move, or if an agreement can be reached, the process moves on to the next step, which is locating the extent of the cemetery and identifying all the graves. This process can involve multiple techniques ranging from probing the ground with a metal rod (used to detect changes in soil density) to ground penetrating radar. The techniques are used to help define the area in which graves are likely to be located, but the only way to positively identify graves is through excavation. Generally this involves mechanically stripping the topsoil to locate the grave shafts. Once the grave shafts are identified, they can be excavated. The remains are usually placed in new caskets of some sort (which can range from simple wooden boxes to elaborately carved mortuary containers) and removed for re-interment at a new cemetery.

At least that's the ideal. Sometimes less reputable contractors take advantage of state minimum requirements to do the minimum of work. For example, at one point in North Carolina the minimum required to move a grave was to remove a prescribed volume of earth from a prescribed depth (usually 1 foot of earth at a certain depth). Sometimes dishonest contractors would simply scoop up a cubic foot of earth with a backhoe, box it, and send it off to be reburied, leaving the bulk of the remains in the ground. As a result the laws were tightened in North Carolina. If you're a developer, I'd recommend spending the money on a good, reliable, firm to handle your grave relocation - it is always bad PR when skeletons start turning up in the flower beds.

The physical part of the process requires skill and experience, but isn't as complex as the legal and cultural issues. Moving a cemetery is not something to be done lightly, it upsets the community, makes people uncomfortable, and can open old hurts in a community. There are many examples of proposed and attempted relocations that have resulted in controversy on the local and national level. On the national level, the African Burial Ground project in New York is an example of the controversy that can arise. On the local level cemetery relocations can cause controversy. The project I was involved with locally involved moving a relatively small cemetery to make room for a new dental school to serve the region. There were concerns because of the limited information on the cemetery - there were only two surviving grave markers, for example. The issue was especially sensitive as the cemetery is an African American one, and thus a sensitive subject in the South. The company which was hired to oversee the relocation was a good one though, and was able to work with the community, the school, and the city council to ensure that all concerns were met. There were even some good side-effects to the relocation - the original cemetery was poorly marked and heavily overgrown. Once the relocation was completed family members were able to visit the graves of their relatives and all identifiable individuals were memorialized on a common marker. You can read more about that project here.

Earlier I mentioned that the reason for the relocation can have a lot to do with whether approval will be granted and with the support a relocation receives in general. In the case of the project I was involved with, the reason for the relocation of the cemetery was to build a dental school - this area is under-served by dental health practitioners, and having a local school will help to alleviate that issue. In other cases road construction and flood control can be reasons for moving a cemetery. But what about when a cemetery is to be relocated just to make way for a new shopping center? Even in that case, with the approval of the family and the community, you can argue that the jobs might make it worthwhile. What about if it's just an individual who wants to build a house though? That's when you start to get on shaky ground, especially when, well, you own over a hundred acres and still insist on plopping a house down right on top of the cemetery.

Every cemetery can't be saved, and each case has to be evaluated on historic grounds, family approval, and good to the community. As you can probably tell, I do strongly feel that the descendants have rights no matter who owns the land. It seems that many states feel the same way and have some provisions codified in law. I have to balance this with a sense of preservation though - too many landowners decide they'll just avoid the hassle by removing any grave markers and plowing up the area to destroy any evidence of graves. It has happens, it continues to happen, and it's difficult to prosecute. The best way to prevent that sort of destruction is to instill a respect for the dead at the community and local level. With relocation a viable option, maybe there will be less destruction of burial grounds. Sphere: Related Content


Unknown said...

When a building contractor moves a very old cemetery in Franklin County, NC with nice marble headstones without the families knowledge, who keeps the records as to where the graves are relocated? The company that now owns the land knows nothing. The NC Cemetery Commission apparently does nothing since they cannot answer this question. Any answers?

Jonathan said...

The short answer is records should be filed with the Registrar of Deeds, so that's the first place to look.

The long answer is in North Carolina General Statutes 65-13, in order to move a cemetery the next of kin must be notified if they can be "reasonably ascertained" and a notice must be published in a the newspaper in the county. If you can't find the information you need at the registrar of deeds (it should all be there though) you may have to check with the local papers and see if you can find a copy of the notice they would have printed.

You can find the Franklin County Registrar of deeds here:

Anonymous said...

How do I find information pertaining to transfer of a single site or burial to another burial site? The current site is in a cemetary in Charlotte,NC and we would like to move the remains to Illinois.