Cemetery Relocation Process


This article will discuss the process used to relocate a cemetery, grave sites in a cemetery or private graves.


The relocation of a cemetery or private graves is a matter regulated by State law as opposed to the Uniform Act (PL91-646). However, some of the provisions of the Act assist us in formulating a reasonable policy to use when affecting a cemetery. The following material is very general, and should be tempered by the requirements of your specific State law.

Once a decision has been made to acquire a portion of a cemetery, the acquisition process is fairly typical, i.e. appraisal, review, negotiations, settlement or condemnation. One interesting aspect of the acquisition process is the determination of the real estate interest (if any) of the lot "owners" in the cemetery. This is an aspect controlled by State law and the specific document granting rights sold by the cemetery owner to the lot owner. In some States this may be a license, which by most State law definitions is not an interest in the real estate (hence not compensable during acquisition), but is instead a right to use the land in a very limited way. The interest may be an easement, which is a compensable interest in the real estate. Interment rights may be considered to be personal property. The type of estate held by the lot owner will need to be determined by the legal staff of the acquiring Agency. The consultant’s input at this point is to remind them to make such a determination and that State law is the determinant. The legal decision here is very important because it will determine with whom we must negotiate, and who must be named in any condemnation petition.

Once the site is acquired, the Agency has the right to enter upon the site, but not necessarily the right to use the site. The remains buried at the site must be removed and all interment rights will need to be purchased before the site can be used for alternate purposes. Once again this is controlled by State law.

As part of the Environmental Assessment process for the project, an archeologist has most likely investigated the cemetery situation to determine if it is of any historical significance. You should obtain a copy of this report since it will have information on the estimated number of burials, next of kin information, and list other useful contacts. If the project is large (say more than 12 graves) a database is critical to track the information as it is assembled. The database should contain information such as original grave site, deceased’s name, dated of death, any contact information, date of removal and replacement grave site.

The next step is to begin gathering contact information. The Agency may "post" the property with a sign, advertise in local papers, or provide press releases to the media in an attempt to contact next of kin for those buried in the acquired site. Cemetery records, if available, are a useful source of information and should be copied for paper files and/or entered into the project database. If a site is unmarked or the records are not accurate, then we may need to also collect physical information about those interred to help with identification, if that is a desired outcome. This physical information is the deceased’s gender, age at death, physical deformities which may be evident in bone, items of jewelry, special buttons, medals, etc. that may have been buried with the body. Information about the type of casket, whether wood or metal, and the color of the casket are also useful, especially for more recent burials. It is also important to ask if the deceased was cremated. The database is useful to track this information.

The next task is to prepare a detailed plan of how the disinterment will proceed, and what costs will be paid for as a part of the process. Typically the Agency causing the displacement will be responsible for all costs – opening the acquired grave site, removal of the contents; any needed investigation to verify identity, transportation to the new burial site, purchase of the new burial site, reinterment at the prevailing standard of the new site. The prevailing standard may require that a concrete vault be provided even though one was not required at the previous site. It may also require a specific type grave marker, which may differ from the original marker.

The detailed relocation plan should include how many disinterments are to occur daily, and the order of disinterment, i.e., if a particular section of the cemetery will be moved at one time. If existing vaults are to be removed, it is important to consider that the ground may become unstable in a particular area. Weather conditions may become a factor in the timing of a cemetery relocation. Consideration should be given to move any unmarked graves first as it may become difficult to locate them once surrounding marked graves are moved. Should recasketing onsite become necessary, the plan should include a designated area for this operation. The purchase and storage location of caskets should also be determined. The relocation plan should include any and all scenarios regarding these possibilities.

Generally remains are classified into two large groups: "claimed" – where a surviving family member has come forward to handle the matter; and "unclaimed"- where no family member has been located or come forward to handle the reburial. If the cemetery has been in place for several generations, you should expect a large number of unclaimed remains. You can test this hypothesis by asking other members of the office if they know where their great-grandparents are buried. We typically are unaware of burial locations beyond two generations past.

The Agency legal staff will assist us in determining the State law requirements to establish reasonable effort to contact next of kin. Once this reasonable effort has been met, the Agency can proceed (usually through a legal process) to begin disinterment. The issued court order will specify the process. We may be called on to offer expert testimony as to the Agency plan to clear the cemetery. Therefore, we will have to identify a specific replacement site (another part of the same cemetery or a nearby cemetery); vendors who are able to provide the needed services – caskets, backhoe operators, persons to move headstones or provide replacement stones, and transportation of remains. We may also have to identify a party to assist with identification of remains. This person is typically an "osteologist" – a person who works with identification from bones. The use of an osteologist will most likely not be necessary in the case of a newer cemetery.

The plan of disinterment should be divided into two parts. One for the unclaimed remains, where the Agency will make all decisions as to the type of replacement casket, reinterment cemetery, etc; and a second part for the claimed remains, where family members may make reasonable determinations of casket, replacement cemetery, headstone, etc. A part of the plan is to set these reasonable standards either by specific identification of the product or a dollar amount.

The plan should also provide for an appeal of standards or cost for claimed remains. For example, if all of the family members are out of town, what is a reasonable cost (if any) to permit a family member to attend the reinterment?* These are Agency decisions, and will need to be part of the plan, and may need to be approved by the court as part of the disinterment process. An appeal process will address those inevitable unknowns that occur. It is important to remember that the reinterment is not a funeral re-creation. While family members may be allowed to attend, discretion is advised, particularly if re-casketing become necessary and is to be done onsite or sections of the cemetery have become unstable.


* Such costs are typically determined to be reasonable if no family member is in the immediate area. They are limited to coach fare, short duration (one to two days), local transportation, hotel, and meals.


Bob Merryman

Bob Merryman

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