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Many people call, write, or visit our web pages because they have found an abandoned cemetery, or know of one, or are trying to save one. Frequently their questions are similar and we hope that this page will provide some quick assistance -- but please feel free to call or contact us for additional information.

Why do cemeteries die?

First, let's address why cemeteries "die." Most die because they are abandoned, but that begs the question -- why are they abandoned? There are, of course, many reasons, but the two most common problems are:

  • Abandoned because the family has moved away or "died off." No living family members or member of the community feel a personal connection to those who are buried there.
  • Abandoned because of the age. The cemetery was once a commercial venture, but today it is full and, lacking any perpetual care funds, there is no money to maintain the graves. The owner has simply abandoned the property.

Each of these leads to other problems. For example, many cemeteries have what those involved in maintenance might consider "design flaws," such as fences and coping, that prevent easy maintenance. So maintenance is avoided. Or the cemeteries are located in areas where access is difficult, making maintenance efforts sporadic. There is also the issue of greed. Some cemeteries, once an appearance of abandonment has set in, are destroyed by those who want to make money off the property.

Finally, a word of warning. There are some community groups that want to do the "right thing" and begin to "restore" a cemetery. People band together for a short period of cemetery cleaning, but fail to follow through -- the work is never completed, or is completed but nothing is put in place to maintain the cemetery after this one effort. It does NO good to clean up a cemetery, only to walk away and allow it to return to its original condition. If you take on a cemetery cleaning project you MUST make provisions to keep the cemetery maintained not for a year, or a decade, or a generation -- but forever.

So, lets go over a few frequently asked questions. Many of these are specific to the state you live in -- we are providing answers appropriate for South Carolina; you will need to do additional research to determine the answers specific to your locality. Also, please remember, we are not attorneys and none of these are intended to offer legal advice. For many projects your first contact should be with an attorney who can advise you concerning your legal rights and obligations.


  1. Someone else now owns the land were my family is buried. What are my rights?
  2. I think I have an abandoned cemetery on my property. Must I maintain it? Must I allow access to it?
  3. What is the definition of an abandoned cemetery?
  4. Who is responsible for taking care of old cemeteries?
  5. Can cemeteries and graveyards be removed from my property? How?
  6. Is archaeological study required?
  7. Who should I call if I find human remains on my property?
  8. Who should I call if I know of a cemetery being damaged or desecrated?
  9. What can I do to help preserve old burial grounds and cemeteries?
  10. What about Native American graves? Are they treated differently?
  11. Can a cemetery be placed on the National Register of Historic Places? What makes it historic?

Someone else now owns the land were my family is buried. What are my rights?

This is a legal question and you need an attorney to advise you. Graves, fences, plantings, and monuments are protected by South Carolina law, but we have found this law to be weak and rarely enforced. There is no law in South Carolina that guarantees descendents access to family graves on another person's property.

Our common sense recommendation is to contact the landowner and explain the situation. Don't assume they are trying to prevent you from visiting the graves, don't even assume they know the graves exist. Explain how you know the cemetery is there and ask permission to visit the graves. If you know that the area has been abandoned, ask permission to clean the area up -- but be prepared to explain how this will affect the owner's property. Explain that you will be responsible for carrying away all waste (cut vegetation) and be prepared to also provide some waiver to the property owner protecting them from legal action if you hurt yourself on their property. In other words, treat them as you want to be treated. Usually this will work -- just be sure to follow through on all your promises.

If you aren't sure who owns the land where the cemetery is located, visit the county courthouse where the cemetery is located and go to the Clerk of Court's office. They will help you locate the parcel on the county tax maps and determine the owner and their address.

I think I have an abandoned cemetery on my property. Must I maintain it? Must I allow access to it?

Again, this is a legal question and we encourage you to seek the opinion of legal counsel. But in general there is no law that requires an land owner to maintain a long-forgotten cemetery or to allow unfettered access to it. On the other hand, consider how you would feel if it was your infant son or daughter that was buried there. Would you not want access? Would you not want to see it cared for?  There are laws that set forth how the cemetery may be moved and prevent knowing and willful damage to the cemetery, its markers, any plantings, and the bodies themselves.

What is the definition of an abandoned cemetery?

South Carolina law  (Section 27-43-40) defines an abandoned cemetery as one where the most recent conveyance does not include any reservation of the cemetery. But courts have interpreted this issue differently and abandonment is not as simple as implied by this statutory definition. You should consult with an attorney.

Who is responsible for taking care of old cemeteries?

While South Carolina law seeks to protect burial grounds and cemeteries from disturbance or desecration, the existing statutes do not address the legal responsibility for cemetery maintenance. In general, active cemeteries are maintained by their owners (not all active cemeteries are perpetual care, so they, too, may one day be "abandoned"). In the case of private, family cemeteries, maintenance is usually conducted by the family or their descendants. As a result, they often become abandoned and lack maintenance.

Although South Carolina does have a law that allows counties to expend funds to maintain cemeteries, most county councils are loath to spend public monies to care for someone else's cemetery. In addition, we believe that this is a very poor option since counties have no experience or knowledge of appropriate cemetery care. As a result stones and intentional plantings are damaged or destroyed in these "clean-up" efforts.

Ultimately it is the family and descendants of those buried in a cemetery to care for the graves.

Can cemeteries and graveyards be removed from my property? How?

Under most circumstances yes, South Carolina law does allow abandoned cemeteries to be removed. This process requires the county's governing body to approve the removal and you to advertise the intention for 30 days. If family members come forward they may protest the removal and this is taken into consideration by the governing body. If removal is ultimately allowed all expenses are borne by you, the property owner. You are responsible for the removal and reburial at a location agreed upon with family members.

Is archaeological study required?

If removal does become necessary many families today are insisting that the removal be conducted by an archaeologist. Through such study the "living learn from dead" and we have unique opportunities to better understand our ancestors. Archaeological excavations -- conducted with extraordinary care and dignity -- also ensure that all remains associated with the burial are recovered, and not just what a backhoe operator happened to see. There are excellent examples of entire cemeteries being removed using archaeological techniques -- at the families' requests -- and then being reburied exactly as found, essentially recreating the original graveyard in a new and safe location. This allows not only learning, but ensure that the cemetery is respected and continues to be available for future generations. Here's one example.

Of course South Carolina law still requires that an undertaker be involved, but often the cost of this archaeological study is no more than what funeral homes charge for burial removals -- and they provide no study or information concerning the burials.

Who should I call if I find human remains on my property?

In South Carolina your first call should always be to the local law enforcement agency or county coroner. They will determine if the remains are within their jurisdiction (i.e., recent). If not, they will probably refer the matter to an archaeologist for assistance. We have worked with several coroners in South Carolina. Feel free to contact us if we can be of assistance.

Who should I call if I know of a cemetery being damaged or desecrated?

Some jurisdictions are very proactive and you can contact your local law enforcement agency, the coroner, or the county solicitor. Sometimes, however, cemetery desecration is tragically viewed as a "victimless crime" and there is indifference. In those cases you should contact all of the media outlets for your area and explain not only what is happening to the cemetery, but also the indifference you have found in the local government. This will usually get results.

What can I do to help preserve old burial grounds and cemeteries?

If there is evidence of damage or vandalism the first thing you should do is make a report to law enforcement. If necessary, follow-up with the media to make certain that the situation is taken seriously.

Otherwise, contact the landowner and see what sort of agreement you can work out concerning maintaining the cemetery. The preferred option is always to maintain the cemetery in its original location and original, maintained condition. Any maintenance effort MUST address issues of long-term care. Temporary solutions -- such as a couple of weekend cleaning sessions -- will only postpone the problem. These well-intentioned efforts also frequently cause additional problems through indiscriminate use of herbicides, the removal of historic vegetation, or the inappropriate use of concrete.

The most successful approach will involve innovative strategies for the long-term maintenance of the cemetery and its traditional form. Your plan should address procedures for the physical maintenance, as well as the long-term financial commitment to ensure preservation. Some approaches that have worked include creating associations of descendants or establishing an endowment for the cemetery's care.

What about Native American graves? Are they treated differently?

South Carolina laws protect all cemeteries and graves equally. The same laws that prevent damage to cemeteries and burials without proper authorization  apply to Native American graves in the same way that they apply to modern cemeteries, family cemeteries, and other unmarked graves. Digging up a Native American grave to collect relics is a felony -- as is grave robbing in any form.

There are federal laws that protect Native American burials on federal or tribal property.

Can a cemetery be placed on the National Register of Historic Places? What makes it historic?

The National Register notes that often cemeteries reflect important cultural values and practices of the past that can instruct us about who we are as a people. Yet often graves and cemeteries are viewed with a sense of devout sentiment that can overshadow objective reason. As a result, cemeteries are among those properties that ordinarily are not considered eligible for inclusion on the National Register. But, the National Register does provide a mechanism of evaluation under which cemeteries may be eligible. To qualify for listing under Criterion A (association with events), Criterion B (association with people), or Criterion C (design), the cemetery or graveyard must meet not only the basic criteria, but also additional special requirements. If, on the other hand, a cemetery is nominated under Criterion D (information potential), then no additional requirements are necessary.

National Register Bulletin 36 outlines how archaeological resources, including cemeteries, should be evaluated. The Bulletin determines five steps for forming a clearly defined, explicit rationale for either the site's eligibility or lack of eligibility.

An important issue is assessing integrity. Under Criterion D, integrity of location, design, materials, and association are essential, with integrity of setting often assisting in the evaluative process. Design, in reference to archaeological sites, means the patterning of features and areas. Integrity of materials refers to the completeness and preservation of the assemblage. Integrity of association means only that there is a clear connection between the research questions and the data sets. Finally, integrity of setting includes the total landscape, including both natural and man-made features.

Significant research questions focus on issues such as bioarchaeology -- diet, disease, and lifeways of the people buried there. They may also involve questions of status and display; or questions involving the use of grave goods, or funerary customs. Significance is increased if the sample of inhumations is statistically useful and if there is relevant associated historical documentation. Another factor that should be considered is if the sample is homogenous in terms of ethnicity and period of interment, or alternatively, large enough to be split into meaningful biological samples which might be statistically useful.

Keep in mind that this process is only an assessment. By outlining the information that a cemetery may provide through excavation does not mean that it will, in fact, be excavated -- any more than assessing the eligibility of any archaeological site means that it is guaranteed excavation. The assessment only documents the information and data potential likely to occur at a specific cemetery.

Cemeteries may be exceptional data sources, even if they are never excavated. There are a number of research issues appropriate to archaeological investigation that do not require destructive techniques. The use of a penetrometer, for example, can often help document the exact location and orientation of graves. Mapping a cemetery to reveal its size, complexity, and nature of above-ground features may provide information on socioeconomic status and social organization. There may be above ground features or artifacts that can provide information on ethnicity and the burial ritual itself. There may also be evidence of previous burials exposed and on the surface if the cemetery has a long history of use. The markers, their materials, and their execution may provide information on trade and business patterns (which may tie into consumer choice studies being conducted using strictly archaeological materials at nearby sites).


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