Historic Cemetery Preservation
Cemeteries and burial grounds are complex cultural landscapes. They hold information about our social, cultural, artistic and architectural heritage. They often are hidden away and undiscovered in woodlands or farm fields. Some graves may never have been marked, or may 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.
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. Should human remains be discovered accidentally, the law requires notification of your county States Attorney.
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. Some cultural resource consultants offer the service of delineating graveyards.
No ground disturbing activities may be conducted on state-owned or state-controlled property without obtaining a permit from MHT.
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).
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 local planning and zoning offices can be found on the Maryland Department of Planning web site. Some jurisdictions have adopted local historic area zoning ordinances, which in some cases may be used to provide certain protection for cemeteries.
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.
Protection and Designation
Ordinarily 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 our National Register page or the National Park Service National Register page. Note that some cemeteries are are found on the grounds of churches and other historic buildings, or are part of larger historic districts.
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.
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 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.
The National Center for Preservation Technology and Training offers workshops and courses; the website also has training videos
The Association for Gravestone Studies offers conservation workshops at their annual conferences
The National Preservation Institute offers cemetery and cemetery landscape preservation seminars
The Association for Preservation Technology International (APT) offers cemetery preservation sessions at annual conferences
For Further Help
For questions related to cemetery technical assistance, contact Nancy Kurtz, (410) 697-9561.
For questions related to archeology, contact Charlie Hall, Ph.D., State Archeologist, (410) 697-9552.
For questions related to delineation of cemetery boundaries using remote sensing, contact Charlie Hall, Ph.D., State Archeologist, (410) 697-9552.