do cemeteries become abandoned?
We must first define the term abandoned to
understand some of the reasons why it occurs. In Illinois,
a cemetery is considered to be abandoned when there have been no
interments for thirty years and the cemetery has been exempt from
real estate taxes during that period. A cemetery is also considered
abandoned when there is no cemetery authority to care for the land
ILCS 1/130-5; 525
ILCS 30/3.01; 765
There are any number of reasons why cemeteries become
abandoned and the most common of these are discussed here:
Size and location Small
family plots, containing immediate and extended family members,
were common in rural communities until the early 1900s. These
plots were located on private farmland away from the main household.
They were often created in the corners of farm fields, along wooded
areas, and frequently on hilltops overlooking a stream. As
the number of small, rural farms declined and land ownership changed
through the decades, the locations of these family plots were lost
and ultimately forgotten.
ownership is an important factor in preserving cemeteries.
If family members have died or moved from the area, there is often
no one interested in caring for the cemetery. The current
landowner may have no personal connection to the cemetery and, therefore,
has no interest in maintaining it. However, if an organization,
such as a church, owns a cemetery, there is a better likelihood
that the cemetery will be maintained.
Time The passage of time
and exposure to the elements takes a great toll on cemeteries.
Markers become worn and broken, fences fall into disrepair,
and trees and brush quickly overtake the cemetery. Sometimes
the task of preserving a cemetery is too physically and financially
daunting and families simply choose to ignore it.
rural cemeteries were located on a wooded or grassed ridge at the
edge of a plowed field and the area was avoided. In more recent
decades, some farmers have cleared these areas to increase their
farm ground and removed the grave markers from their fields.
This creates two important problems. First, the individual
graves are no longer marked, and second, the location of the cemetery
becomes permanently erased from the surface of the landscape. After 1990 in Illinois, it became illegal to remove grave markers
from a cemetery (20
Urban expansion has forced the removal or relocation
of many old cemeteries. But it is a common misconception that
all of the graves were moved. What often occurred is that
some of the graves were moved, as well as many or all of
the headstones. Historically, early cemeteries associated
with urban areas were typically located away from the city limits.
These burying grounds or old city cemeteries were gradually abandoned
because they were full, had no permanent care funds for their continued
maintenance, or were replaced by new city cemeteries organized into
park-like settings. Graves left behind were unmarked and the
cemetery location was eventually forgotten. This oversight
became problematic as continued urban development disturbed these
unmarked graves. Unfortunately, this is still a problem today.
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Who is responsible for the care of old and abandoned cemeteries?
The care and maintenance of abandoned, inactive cemeteries tends
to be the responsibility of the family or the landowner. Althougth
active cemeteries are usually maintained by the owner or cemetery
association, not all have provisions for perpetual care. These
unfunded” cemeteries will eventually become abandoned due
to lack of financial support and basic care.
Under Illinois law,
a county or township board can allot funds to restore a cemetery
to a maintainable condition, such as brush clearing and mowing (50
laws protecting cemeteries?
Yes. There are several Illinois laws
that offer protection to cemeteries. They are summarized in Stones
and Statutes: Laws Governing Illinois Cemeteries.
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like to restore an old cemetery. How can I get started?
Research, research, research! Contact the landowner and get
their permission. A sample landowner permission form is provided here
for your use. You should explain your project to them in order
to reach an agreement about cleaning and maintaining the cemetery.
It is important to have both short- and long-term goals in mind
when you visit the landowner so that your level of commitment is
clear. Landowners may be more agreeable to your project if
you have plans to haul away trash and cut vegetation and then follow
through with your promise.
If you are uncertain about who owns the land, visit
the Recorder of Deeds Office in the county courthouse where the
cemetery is located. Their staff will help you locate the
property on the county maps and determine the owner’s name
Please know that in Illinois, it is illegal
to probe for buried grave markers. Basic cemetery preservation
work, including probing, exposing, cleaning or repairing headstones,
requires a permit
from the IHPA. In addition, you must demonstrate that you
have received proper training in basic cemetery preservation methods
before you will be authorized to continue. Work can not begin
until you have received a written permit from the IHPA.
Historic Cemetery Preservation Handbook: A Guide to Basic Preservation
provides you with step-by-step instructions on how to research
and document a cemetery, create a management plan, and safely clean
gravestones. It lists additional on-line resources and helpful
books written by experienced cemetery preservationists. Remember
the number one rule! Do No Harm.
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Does the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency provide grants to restore old cemeteries?
While we advise people on how to preserve their historical cemeteries,
we are unable to fund cemetery preservation projects. Our
staff is willing to train volunteers in the proper cemetery restoration
techniques. Training opportunities and cemetery workshops
will be listed on the IHPA cemetery webpage.
Cemetery preservation is primarily a community-based
effort. Funding and labor are largely borne by the individual, family
or group wanting to preserve the cemetery. We encourage you to seek
assistance from the community and to partner with local volunteer
groups who may be interested in providing “hands-on”
assistance. Some ideas include:
• Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts earn service
hours for community projects. They have been involved with the
documentation and preservation of abandoned cemeteries. It’s
a very rewarding experience for everyone!
• Seek donations of services or supplies from local businesses,
county commissioners or monument companies. These groups may be
willing and able to help with supplies or labor. Businesses often
want to support community projects.
• Descendants of the deceased buried in the cemetery may
wish to support your efforts, too. Some may be able to help financially
or with the hands-on part of your preservation project. Every
little bit helps.
• Form a cemetery association and obtain non-profit status.
Hold fund raisers to support your efforts. Funds can be placed
in a trust fund for the care of the cemetery.
where my family is buried is now owned by someone else. Do
I have legal rights to the cemetery?
You should consult with a lawyer on this matter. Some states
have ingress and egress laws allowing for descendents and genealogists
to visit abandoned cemeteries. However, there is no such law
in Illinois. You should always ask permission to enter private property
to access a cemetery. This same courtesy applies if you need to
cross someone’s land to enter a cemetery.
have an abandoned cemetery on my property, do I have to maintain
it? Do I have to allow access to it?
While laws exist in Illinois to protect cemeteries, there are no
legal requirements for landowners to maintain abandoned cemeteries,
nor do they have to allow access to them. Some landowners
welcome families to visit and care for their ancestor's graves while
others do not. We encourage landowners to keep an open mind
about allowing family members to visit old cemeteries on their property
for this simple act of kindness can bring much satisfaction to families.
To some, being allowed to visit the grave of a loved one is very
meaningful. Perhaps the landowner could provide limited access
to family members, for example when crops have been harvested.
Ultimately, this is a moral as well as a legal issue, but you must
respect the landowner's decision.
Please note that failure to maintain a cemetery can
create future problems to landowners. As cemeteries become
abandoned and neglected, they are no longer visible and people forget
their exact locations. A consequence of this is that future
land developments can become costly when an abandoned cemetery is
found and the landowner or developer must bear the financial responsibility
to either preserve it or relocate it.
If a cemetery has an existing easement to it, the
easement must be maintained for access. To determine if an
easement exists, it will be recorded on the deed. This information
is available at the Recorder of Deeds office in the county where
the cemetery is located.
Can I have
an abandoned grave or cemetery removed from my property?
Under Illinois' Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act, no grave
site may be disturbed without a permit from the Illinois Historic
Preservation Agency. If, because of your activities, you are
unable to avoid the burial site, you may submit a written letter
of application to remove the grave(s). The letter must explain your
planned project and why the burial site cannot be avoided. That
is, you must show that you have considered alternative options for
preserving the site in place and why these options will not work.
You must also include development plans for the project. The application
should be submitted to the Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act
Coordinator at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Work cannot
begin until you receive the permit.
Professional archaeologists and Certified Skeletal
Analysts must conduct the removal of graves and their contents.
Please contact us for
specific information and for a listing of qualified professional
archaeologists and skeletal analysts.
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I contact if I know of an abandoned cemetery that is being damaged?
If you observe vandalism in a cemetery, please contact local law
enforcement and file a report. You should also notify the
landowner. To discourage further damage, warning signs can
be posted that inform visitors of the laws protecting cemeteries
and the penalties associated with vandalism.
I do if I accidently disturb a grave site or find human remains?
Stop work immediately! Illinois law requires you to contact
the county coroner
within 48 hours of the discovery. The coroner's office will
determine if the remains are recent (less than 100 years old) and
if the case warrants any further investigation. If these criteria
are met, they will maintain jurisdiction. If the remains appear
to be over 100 years old, then jurisdiction is transferred to the
Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) under the auspices
of the Human
Skeletal Remains Protection Act (20 ILCS 3440). The
IHPA staff can assist you to determine the best course of action.
However, it is the agency's preference that the remains are
left undisturbed and preserved in place.
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Is it appropriate
to add a fence to a cemetery?
After a successful cemetery project has been completed, you might
wonder if a fence is needed to protect it. Fences around a
burial site help to stop intrusions and also define the cemetery
boundaries. However not all cemeteries were originally enclosed
with fences. If you add a fence to a cemetery that never had
one before, you would be changing its content because fences have
meaning. By today’s standards, enclosing a cemetery
makes it look nice but to the people who established the cemetery,
a fence was not necessary. Should you decide that it is necessary
to have a physical barrier around the cemetery, you should consider
using a material that is as non-obtrusive to the environment as
possible. When possible, use vegetation or other natural materials
rather than metal fencing. These create a more peaceful feeling
in the cemetery as opposed to a more harsh setting.
If for any reason, you determine that a fence should
be installed or replaced, you should consult with local authorities
(city or county government) to make sure the fence you want conforms
to any applicable codes.
Some of the older cemeteries may have had fences at
one time and we would encourage you to repair or replace them.
Please remember that if the cemetery is located on private property,
the landowner may not want a fence constructed because it might
hinder farming activities around the cemetery. You might offer
a proposal of either planting trees or placing PVC pipes at the
corners of the cemetery to mark the boundary. It is important
to always follow through with your promises of upkeep in the cemetery
because the landowner may be more supportive of your project.
Sometimes enclosing a cemetery with a fence is necessary
to protect it from construction activities. In these instances,
the IHPA requests a 100 foot buffer to ensure adequate protection.
Once the development is completed, the fence can be removed.
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prehistoric mounds considered burial grounds? Are Native American
graves given special treatment?
In the interest of preserving cultural resources in the state and
as provided by the statute, the IHPA considers prehistoric mounds
to be grave markers. They are protected under the Human Skeletal
Remains Protection Act, referenced above.
No. It is the intent of this Act that all graves
are afforded equal treatment and respect for human dignity regardless
of ethnic origins, religious affiliations, or cultural backgrounds.
a cemetery be listed on the National Register of Historic Places?
Yes, prehistoric and historic burial grounds and cemeteries can
be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are
specific criteria that must be met and the National Park Service
Register Bulletin Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Cemeteries
and Burial Places provides guidance to help you understand these
considerations and the nomination process.
If you have specific questions about listing a cemetery
on the National Register of Historic Places, please contact our
Heckenkamp, Andrew - National Register Coordinator, 217-785-4324,
Hathaway, Amy - National Register Specialist, 217-782-8588,
Preservation Services staff:
Rachel Leibowitz – Preservation Services Division Manager,
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