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. Pre-Contact Native American prehistoric burial sites are commonly unmarked and may include the remains of one or 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 State's Attorney.
Burials of Indigenous Americans, enslaved people, and others 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 archaeologist 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.
Required Consultation with MHT
During the 2018 Maryland Legislative Session, the following addition was made to the Real Property article of Maryland Code:
§ 14-121.1. Proper treatment of burial site in existence for more than 50 years
(a) "Burial site" defined. -- In this section, "burial site" has the meaning stated in § 14-121 of this subtitle.
(b) Owner to consult with the Director of Maryland Historical Trust. -- An owner of a burial site or of the land encompassing a burial site that has been in existence for more than 50 years and in which the majority of the persons interred in the burial site have been interred for more than 50 years shall consult with the Director of the Maryland Historical Trust about the proper treatment of markers, human remains, and the environment surrounding the burial site.
(c) Advice is not binding. -- Advice provided by the Maryland Historical Trust under this section is not binding on the owner of the burial site.
Section 14-121, to which this provision refers, defines "burial site" as "any natural or prepared physical location, whether originally located below, on, or above the surface of the earth into which human remains or associated funerary objects are deposited as a part of a death rite or ceremony of any culture, religion, or group." Under these provisions, the owner of a covered burial site is required to consult with MHT before altering one or more of the following: (1) grave markers, (2) human remains, or (3) the environment surrounding the burial site.
If you are the owner of a burial site or of the land encompassing a burial site and you plan on carrying out any of the work outlined above, please complete and submit the following form in order to initiate consultation with MHT.
If you are not the owner of a burial site or of the land encompassing a burial site, but plan on conducting activities that will impact the grave markers, human remains, or surrounding environment of the burial site, please complete and submit the following form so that MHT may provide advice regarding cemetery preservation best practices.
To Report a Historic Cemetery
To report a historic cemetery, please use the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration's Cemetery Inventory form.
Instructions for joinining MDOT SHA's Cemetery Inventory initiative to begin submitting survey information regarding cemeteries across the State of Maryland are here.
Modern and Recent Cemeteries
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).
Documentation of historic cemeteries and burial sites is a crucial step in their protection and management. Currently, 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 archaeology site files, although these are files not available to the public in order to protect often sensitive archaeological 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.
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.
Local jurisdictions may have laws and regulations dealing with cemeteries as well. Click the link below to see the laws and regulations that may also apply to the area of interest.
» Cemetery Laws by County or Jurisdiction
Design Guidelines and Alterations
Jurisdictions that designate historic cemeteries under a local historic preservation ordinance may wish to adopt guidelines to help direct local review of proposed alterations to designated historic cemeteries. Design guidelines outline the types of undertakings that may be appropriate or inappropriate for historic resources. In the case of cemeteries, they might establish certain types of activities, such as active burials and maintenance, that do not require review.
Prior to starting maintenance or making any changes to a historic cemetery, MHT recommends contacting your local planning office or local historic preservation commission.
National Register Designation
Ordinarily cemeteries are not considered eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, the nation's list of cultural resources maintained by the National Park Service. National Register designation may qualify a cemetery for financial incentives and provides an opportunity for consultation if a state or federal action may impact the site. For more information, see the MHT Project Review page.
Note that some cemeteries are found on the grounds of National Register-listed historic districts or invidually listed buildings, such as churches. Cemeteries may qualify for the National Register if they are integral parts of such properties or districts that meet the criteria for listing. As some cemeteries may embody values beyond the personal, family-specific, or religious, the National Register criteria do 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.
NPS Preservation Brief #48, Preserving Grave Markers in Historic Cemeteries
Funding and Technical Assistance
MHT can provide technical assistance on historic cemetery matters. However, MHT does not have dedicated funding for cemetery preservation projects. Historic Preservation 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. Note, the grantee must donate a preservation easement on the property to MHT in order to receive a Historic Preservation Capital grant. Because cemeteries often have multiple lot owners, the conveyance of an easement on cemeteries is often complicated.
The Maryland Heritage Areas Program, administered by MHT, may provide funds for cemetery projects that fall within the boundaries of one of Maryland's thirteen heritage areas. Please note that the project must have a Heritage tourism component and support the management plan of the local heritage area.
Cemeteries and burial grounds that are significant to the African American experience in Maryland may be eligible for funding from the African American Heritage Preservation Program.
The Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites hosts an annual conference, networking opportunities, and training sessions throughout the year.
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, maintenance, and conservation consultation, or questions related to cemetery delineation through remote sensing or archaeology, please contact Dr. Zachary Singer at firstname.lastname@example.org.