Historic Cemetery Preservation

Cemetery on Hoopers Island, Dorchester CountyCemeteries and burial grounds are complex cultural landscapes.  They hold information about our social, cultural, artistic and architectural heritage.  They may be threatened by overgrowth and neglect, vandalism, development, and sometimes, unwise repair efforts.  They often are hidden away and undiscovered in woodlands or farm fields.  Many graves were originally unmarked, have lost their markers or may be marked with field stones; while more difficult to recognize, they are equally worthy of protection.  Native American prehistoric burial sites are commonly unmarked, and may include the remains of from one to hundreds of individuals.  When burial grounds are located and recorded with county governments, they can be protected and taken into consideration during planning activities.

For more information on cemetery preservation please contact Nancy Kurtz at (410) 514-7648.

Important Legal Information

Designing a Preservation Plan for a Cemetery

Detail of a headstone in Rockville Cemetery, Montgomery CountyThe preservation of a cemetery or burial ground requires careful planning.  In cemetery preservation projects there is often the impulse to rush to treatment; the results can be detrimental.  Before any work is carried out, first document, assess, research and prioritize.  Helpful resources are available on-line and in print. 

Click here for a guide to preparing a Preservation Plan for a historic cemetery.

Legal Protection for Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

Ground Disturbance, Disinterment, and Accidental Discovery

Maryland law provides protection against disturbance of burial sites and human remains and provides a basis for access.

For information on starting a new cemetery or regulating an existing cemetery, please contact the State of Maryland Office of Cemetery Oversight, in the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (DLLR).

Should human remains be discovered accidentally, the law requires notification of your county states attorney. Click here for a list of State's Attorneys in each county. 

Prehistoric, slave and other burials may be unmarked, including graves that may lie outside the boundaries of known cemeteries; modern boundaries often fail to enclose an entire historic cemetery.  Markers also may have fallen and become buried below grade.  Probing to identify unmarked graves may result in damage, and is discouraged unless conducted with the landowner’s permission by an archeologist trained in techniques for locating graves.  Cultural resource consultants who offer the service of delineating graveyards can be found on the MHT Consultants Directory.

No ground disturbing activities may be conducted on state-owned or state-controlled property without obtaining a permit from MHT.


Efforts to inventory and provide for protection of cemeteries through local ordinances vary widely by jurisdiction.  If you are concerned about a cemetery or burial site, MHT suggests you provide your local planning and zoning office with the resource’s location to ensure it is recorded for planning and permitting purposes.  A list of contacts for local planning and zoning offices is found at www.mdp.state.md.us/localplan/plandirs.html.  Some jurisdictions have adopted local historic area zoning ordinances, which in some cases may be used to provide certain protection for cemeteries.  For a list of the local jurisdictions that have adopted historic area zoning ordinances, click here

Design Guidelines and Alterations

In those jurisdictions where a historic cemetery is designated under a local historic preservation ordinance, it may be useful to have in place guidelines specific to cemeteries that would help direct local review of proposed alterations to designated historic cemeteries.  Design guidelines outline the types of undertakings that may be appropriate, and those that may be inappropriate, for historic resources, and in the case of cemeteries, they might establish certain types of activities, such as active burials and new marker placement, that do not require review.  For an example of historic cemetery guidelines, see the City of Rockville’s “Rockville Cemetery Historic District Design Guidelines”:


Protection and Designation

Annapolis National Cemetery, Anne Arundel CountyOrdinarily cemeteries are not considered eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, the nation’s list of cultural resources identified as worthy of preservation.  The National Park Service (NPS) maintains the National Register.  For information about the National Register, see www.nps.gov/nr  To search the National Register for cemeteries listed in Maryland, search the database and type in the keyword “cemetery.”  Most are found on the grounds of churches and other historic buildings.

Cemeteries may qualify for National Register designation if they are integral parts of districts that meet the criteria for listing.  As some cemeteries may embody values beyond the personal, family-specific, or religious, the National Register criteria allow for the listing of individual cemeteries and burial grounds under certain limited conditions.  A cemetery may be eligible if it derives its primary significance from:

  • graves of persons of transcendent importance;
  • the age of the burials;
  • distinctive design features;
  • association with historic events; or
  • if the resource has the potential to yield important information.

An NPS guide to the evaluation, documentation and nomination of cemeteries and burial places is available here:  www.nps.gov/history/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb41/.

Regardless of whether a cemetery is listed in the National Register, the documentation of historic cemeteries and burial sites is a crucial step in their protection and management.  MHT does not have a dedicated cemetery inventory.  However, cemeteries and burial sites may be included in the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties (MIHP).  Many cemeteries and burial sites are included as resources within the boundaries of other historic properties, such as churches, farms and historic districts.  Some cemeteries are also recorded in the MHT archeology site files, although these are files not available to the public in order to protect often sensitive archeological resources from disturbance.  The MIHP is a research and documentation instrument.  Listing of a cemetery in the MIHP has no regulatory impact on that resource and does not convey a historic designation. 

Funding and Technical Assistance

MHT can provide technical assistance on cemetery matters.  However, MHT does not have dedicated funding for cemetery preservation projects.  Capital grants are available to eligible applicants (usually non-profit organizations and local jurisdictions) for projects including acquisition, rehabilitation and restoration of historic property included in or eligible for the National Register.  Cemeteries eligible for listing in the National Register may be eligible for Capital Grants.  Note, the grantee must donate a preservation easement on the property to MHT in order to receive a Capital Grant.  Because cemeteries often have multiple lot owners, the conveyance of an easement on cemeteries is often complicated.

Non-capital grants are available to non-profit organizations and local governments for research, survey, planning and educational activities involving architectural, archeological, or cultural resources.  Eligible activities may include the development of preservation plans; architectural, archeological or cultural resource surveys; educational outreach programs; and National Register nominations. 

For questions related to cemetery technical assistance, contact Nancy Kurtz, National Register Coordinator, (410) 514-7648. 

For questions related to archeology, contact Charlie Hall, Ph.D., State Archeologist, (410) 514-7665.


This page updated: January 4, 2012

Cemetery history and design follow the growth patterns of our nation and state:

Native American prehistoric burial sites are commonly unmarked, and may include the remains of from one to hundreds of individuals.  While most known prehistoric burial sites are associated with the later pre-European settlement periods (ca. AD 900 – 1600), earlier burial sites have been identified in Maryland. 

Pioneer graves, the earliest European settlement period burials, were usually unmarked or marked with a field stone or wooden slab.  They may have been isolated or located near existing Native American burial grounds. 

Domestic, homestead or farm burial grounds, dating from the European settlement period to the present, were family graveyards, sometimes slave graveyards, and may contain graves of neighbors.  Often placed on a high point, they may be found overgrown in woods or farm fields, contained by fencing or walls, marked with monuments, or with unmarked graves or graves marked only with field stones. 

Neighborhood burial grounds, churchyard cemeteries, and city or town cemeteries, dating from settlement to the present, may contain marked or unmarked graves.  Families or individuals may own the lots and monuments; where owners have died out there may be no funding in place for maintenance. 

Rural cemeteries, placed beyond city limits, developed in the first half of the 19th century as a result of overcrowding in cities and fear of contamination of the water supply.  They were naturalistic, designed garden landscapes, open to the public as the first parks, and characterized by picturesque, rolling terrain, serpentine roadways, sculptural monuments, ornamentation, curbing and fencing.  Families cared for their lots.

The lawn-park cemetery developed in the second half of the 19th century, along with the suburb and the patenting of the mechanical lawn mower.  The landscape lawn plan was a cleaner, simpler, more open design, with fewer and more classical monuments, often one per family surrounded by unmarked individual graves, fewer plantings and less clutter overall.  Maintenance was purchased from the cemetery by the lot-holders, resulting in a more unified appearance.

The memorial park developed in the suburbs of the 20th century, characterized by a landscape of lawn punctuated by plantings and sculpture, and with flush individual markers.  Cemetery corporations provided perpetual care.