The long-term fate of cemeteries?

Inspired by this thread about church funding, because it reminded me of a church near my house that was recently torn down. It doesn’t have a cemetery associated with it, but some other churches do, and lately I’ve been wondering what happens to cemeteries when the finances used for their upkeep run out, or the organization taking care of them ceases to exist. Does the land get sold to someone else? If so, can that buyer do whatever they want with it, or are they legally required to move the graves and columbariums to some other patch of land (in which case, who takes care of the upkeep there)?

A cemetery might revert to the county / state entity who will invariably have little enthusiasm and less money to do anything. But, an over-grown, rambling cemetery is not itself a bad thing and can be an acceptable preservationist approach.

The mechanics of selling will vary a lot by jurisdiction, but assuming it is zoned as a cemetery / burial place there would be formal approval processes, including public health considerations, about changing the land use.

For regular dead people, say a standard cemetery used over the past century, the developer would be expected to make efforts to find living relatives and descendants and to seek their approval to interfere with the remains. Again, it will vary, but the starting point could be that ‘we offer to dig Granny out of cemetery X and relocate her to more or less the same arrangement in new cemetery Y, with a spanking new headstone’.

Things that complicate this very broad generalisation would include:

  • the status of the cemetery as a historical or archaeological site

  • the fact that if you’ve paid for your plot you pretty much own that little bit of planet earth and there could be considerable legal effort to overcome that [x 5000 interments]

  • any known infectious disease burials.

A proposal that wanted to just build over dead bodies would be very unlikely to be allowed, as an affront to the dignity of the dead. People who are not directly connected to any of the burials can still get riled up and protest because redeveloping a cemetery hits pretty hard at many folks’ ideas about letting the dead rest in peace, and the dignity of humans even after death. And this is pretty general, not just the religiously inclined.

One of Chicago’s major parks used to be a cemetary

After the cemetery land became part of Lincoln Park in 1869, families were expected to make arrangements to move the remains of their relatives. It is not entirely clear as to why the Couch Tomb was left behind. It seems likely; however, that surviving family members thought it too expensive to move the fifty-ton structure to another cemetery. By 1899, the Lincoln Park Commissioners asserted that “…it would be impossible to remove the vault, except at great expense, and the Commissioners preferred to allow it to remain as an interesting reminder of the Park’s origin.”

I’ll bet they only moved the headstones and left the bodies.

Will people never learn?

Yep, size matters! Look at the pharaohs. They’re not moving anywhere. At this point, I’m thinking “small pyramid” for my final resting place.

Here’s a SDSAB report on this very subject.

I can answer this, at least for Maryland.

The old family style cemeteries, the ones with one-thirty or so burials, almost anything can happen to them. Many of them, especially when they are in the way, the stones are destroyed and the bodies just left. This happens a lot on farms, but just last year I know of one that was destroyed by a builder. Other times the stones are moved either closer together or alongside of the barn. Others are left and plowed around. The vast majority of the ones that are left are in poor shape. Though sometimes some family group will restore them and put a fence around it.

Sometimes when a church goes defunct, the cemetery will remain and go with the person that buys property. In the few cases that I’ve seen like that people tend to just mow around the stones. I’ve only seen a handful of those types of places. I have also seen times when the property is owned by no one. Looking at the tax maps you can see an empty lot with no owner. Sometimes someone will take care of the area, in others nothing happens and it gets grown over.

If it’s a private cemetery that goes defunct, sometimes some other group will take it over and run the cemetery. Or, as in the case with a church, it just sits around. I haven’t looked to see if someone owns those areas or not, though in a few cases I’ve seen a city take them over.

In cases of if the cemetery is in the way of progress it depends. I’ve seen in some cases some family member must pay to have the body moved, though I think now it’s on the developer to pay.

In general, in the last few decades at least, cemeteries are being taken care of a lot better. Prior to that lots of things happened. The Laboring Sons Memorial Gardens, a free black cemetery, was turned into a whites only park. If someone destroyed a cemetery no one cared, now if it can be proved there are fines for doing so.

(Fun fact: the skeletons in this scene were actually real)

I have some distant relatives in an abandoned cemetery. I went to my uncle’s mothers funeral in 1968. She may have been one of the last burials there. She was buried next to her husband who died thirty years earlier.

I found the abandoned church in the late 1980’s. That was my landmark for finding the cemetery behind it. It was all woods with some small bushes & trees growing among the graves. My uncles parents gravestone was still legible. I think he had it professionally cleaned when the information was updated in 1968.

I’ve often thought of auditing the names and submitting them to find a I’m not sure if that’s even possible now. I’d guess the entire area is heavily wooded by now.

“I tell you country clubs and cemeteries are the biggest wastes of prime real estate.”

I work in real estate so have come adjacent to some of these issues, but have never directly had to deal with them. I’m familiar with an office development in Charleston, WV that was built around a grave, I can’t remember if it was a family or one person. I discovered it while there I noticed a small patch of maintained grass in the office park, with a memorial in the middle and a small black metal barrier surrounding the memorial. I thought it odd because I figured it was just a monument celebrating some local figure, and thought it strange it had a small fence ringing it (the fence was maybe 1’ high and only ringed the area immediately around the memorial), when I approached it I realized it was just a grave. Someone I knew who was involved in the property basically said it was a family grave plot and they were not legally allowed to move it without the family’s permission–which they could not obtain because they could find no living descendants, so it’s been there ever since.

My understanding is most modern cemeteries are much more tightly regulated–if you want to run a cemetery you are required to maintain a very strict endowment that you’re very limited in how you can invest, and there’s lots of financial requirements around it. The intention is that the money you take in, with interest, should be able to maintain the grounds in perpetuity. I am quite sure this won’t be the case in all instances, but I do think the reason such laws exist is because of the large number of private cemeteries that went defunct and the problems associated with that.

See this thread for related info:

Nitpick: As a general rule, cemeteries are freestanding, graveyards are adjacent to and part of the grounds of a church.

Not relevant to cemeteries whose administration goes out of business, or are otherwise abandoned, but very relevant to cemeteries that are running out of space:

Just two weeks ago, I went to visit the graves of my great-grandparents, who died around 1940-1950, located in Brooklyn NY. When I arrived, the first oddity I noticed was the “No cars allowed” sign. Then I found that every possible bit of land around the office building, except for some sidewalks, was now in use by graves. When I got to my great-grandparents, it turned out that the roads - which had been wide enough for cars in previous decades - were mere sidewalks, with new graves from the last 20 years using the newfound space.

From the style of the newer gravestones, and the languages of the writing on them, it was obvious that the cemetery had started marketing to a specific group of recent immigrants. Nothing at all wrong with that, although the mix is a bit jarring. I’m actually impressed that they figured out a way to stay in business for a few more decades.

One of the first jobs my high school history teacher had after he got his PhD was working with road crews who were building an interstate highway (in the 1960s or 1970s, I think). If digging unearthed anything that looked like it might be a grave site, he had to decide whether it was human remains that had to be relocated or was just dirt.

From where do you get this distinction? Merriam-Webster and I treat them as synonymous and I’ve never heard of anyone who drew the line you are drawing.

ETA: Snopes says there was a meme making your claim but that it’s false, and they cite to Merriam-Webster too.

And if the family refuses, you might get this: grave in road - Google Search

@Tired_and_Cranky Well, according to Snopes, there were some differences in times past, that went away in recent centuries. But it was never so clear cut as I averred. So consider me re-educated on the topic. Thanks for fighting my ignorance!

“Today, the difference between graveyards and cemeteries is non-existent. Historical differences existed between churchyards and cemeteries that gradually went away in modern day usage.”

Had you noted the difference between churchyards and cemeteries, I would not have been so surprised.

What happens to irregular dead people?

And, two different cemeteries have been relocated in order to make room for O’Hare International Airport – one in the 1950s, and another just a few years ago (to clear room for new runway construction). A third cemetery is still on the airport’s property.