If you must move a cemetery . . .
It’s never something you want to think about, and it should always be the choice of
last resort, but there are times when a cemetery has to be moved in order to
preserve and protect the remains. How this is done is established by state law.
In South Carolina it is Section 27-43-10 through 40.
terms of the law, the only requirement for the actual excavation is that the
work be done “under the supervision of the governing body of the county, who
shall employ a funeral director licensed by this State.” What this means in
practice is that a funeral director be retained to provide respect for the
The problem is that low bid firms hired by the governing body or the funeral
director have no knowledge in osteology (human skeletal remains), period burial
practices (like the types of coffins used during different periods or the social
status that different practices reflect), or even how to best excavate human
remains. Often these low-bid firms use backhoes to scoop up some soil and dump
it in a pasteboard box, claiming that no bone would be left anyway. Or sometimes
the laborers they hire have no idea what they are actually looking for. The
result – human remains are disrespected by being overlooked, damaged, and destroyed.
more than that, all of us lose part of our heritage – we miss the opportunity to
have the dead teach the living – about diet, disease, social customs, family
heritage, and lifeways.
There is an alternative – the use of forensic anthropologists to remove human
remains. These individuals are trained in the excavation and analysis of
skeletal material – they can recognize even small, fragmentary bones. And they
are trained to recognize different coffin fragments, handles, clothing, and
other remains that might be preserved. We believe that only
appropriately-trained personnel should be involved in the excavation and
recovery of all human remains, whether ancient or recent. Baseline
qualifications for archaeologists are available from the
Secretary of the
Interior. We also support guidelines for professional qualifications and
conduct established by the Register of
Professional Archaeologists and the
Society for American Archaeology. The controlled excavation and collection
of human remains takes a significant amount of time, often measured in days.
Professional archaeologists will not violate standard professional protocol for
burial excavation unless significant extenuating conditions, such as safety or
severe weather, are present. Thus, the involvement of professional
archaeologists in burial excavation and removal will always slow the rate of
processing at the site.
Not only will the remains be recovered with respect
and as completely as possible, but forensic archaeologists also have the
training to identify burial locations, helping to ensure that no one is left
There are a number of studies that a trained
forensic anthropologist will want to undertake should it be necessary to remove
human remains -- and these studies are critical in the process of "the dead
teaching the living." For example, samples will be taken to help identify any
parasites (such as hookworm or tapeworm) or insects that might have been
present. This information can help us better understand the disease and diet of
the individual, as well as provide information concerning the treatment of the
corpse. It is at times possible to obtain information through DNA analysis on blood grouping, HLA
typing, and antibody absorption -- all efforts that while time consuming and
expensive provide otherwise unavailable genetic information. A new technique,
called histomorthometrics, allows microscopic age determination by thin
sectioning long bones. Carbon isotope analysis is useful in determining the diet
of the population. Trace element analysis can also address a broad range of
questions about diet and contamination or poisoning of an individual. While some
tests are destructive and may be unacceptable to families, there are also
nondestructive techniques (such as X-ray fluorescence, electron microprobe, and
neutron activation). Bones can also be examined for evidence of heavy metals to
address other questions concerning diet and disease.
should be allocated for the
scientific study of human remains
and grave goods prior to reburial.
Periods measured in hours or days
are unreasonably short and fail to
allow the full investigation of the
recovered remains. Weeks or months
are more appropriate in most cases.
Cemetery and Burial Relocations
A developer bought the land my family
cemetery is on and has obtained the permission of the local government to move
my cemetery. Will they be required to use a forensic anthropologist?
No. They will only be required to hire a funeral director. Then they are allowed
to get the cheapest bid they can find for digging up your loved ones. You can,
however, insist that a forensic anthropologist be hired – remember, state law
gives you a say in the matter.
heard that archaeologists are ghouls who only want to dig up bones to study
You’ve heard wrong. We here
at Chicora would prefer never to move a burial, much less a cemetery. But if
human remains must be moved we believe that – with the family’s permission – the
remains have the potential to tell us a great deal about life here in South
Carolina. By studying human remains we have the opportunity to learn things that
are in no history book or family diary. This is an opportunity for the dead to
teach the living – to provide a continuing legacy.
Will archaeologists dig up or study my
ancestor’s bones without my permission?
No. We believe that it is
essential to obtain the consent of the family. Some families agree that
archaeological study is useful – helping them learn more about the past and
their family members; some disagree. We respect your right to make that
decision. But, you should still consider how you want the remains handled – with
a shovel, or worse, with a backhoe – or by someone trained to carefully hand
excavate the bones and recover as many of them as possible. We believe that
trained, professional archaeologists will do a far better job at recovering your
loved ones than a day laborer with no previous training or understanding.
Will an archaeologist be more
Possibly. But there is a
world of difference between skilled, careful excavation and a backhoe. You need
to make the decision how valuable your family remains are and what you feel is
the appropriate level of respect to show them.
Are all the tests you talk about
If a grave must be moved,
there is that one opportunity to allow the dead to teach the living. If a family
is willing to allow their loved one to be examined, yes, these tests are
necessary since they provide a rare glimpse into the past that would not
otherwise be available. Moving a grave is traumatic -- at least this level of
investigation provides some positive outcome, providing a legacy of information.
"Mortui Vivos Docent" is Latin for
"The dead teach the living" -- expressing the hope that in even in death there
can be much learned.
What else do
forensic archaeologists do?
We can identify the
boundaries of a cemetery, how many graves are in a family plot (even those that
are unmarked), and we can examine the construction techniques of different
vaults to help you determine the best means of repairing them. We can even
examine coffin remains to help date the materials. Forensic
archaeologists also work with law enforcement to identify and recovery crime
victims. See more on our Forensic