As an impressionable child I watched “Poltergeist,” and it has stuck with me to this day. When I come across a reference to a cemetery that has been moved I can’t help but think of this classic line, “You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn't you? You son of a … you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! You only moved the headstones!” It wasn't until more recently when I was discussing the topic of moving cemeteries with a co-worker that I became more informed about the facts regarding such occurrences. Apparently moving a cemetery happens a lot more often than you would think!
There are many reasons that a cemetery would be moved; there could be a new road coming through or a reservoir may be planned for the area, or it could be that the real estate became too valuable and the owner decided to sell. In any case, once the decision has been made to move the cemetery there are a number of steps that are taken. Usually the cemetery owner advertises in the local newspaper that those with relatives buried there should claim the body and find a new burial spot for them. For those who remain unclaimed, the responsibility of moving the bodies falls to those hired by the cemetery owner. I would like to think that all such moves would include the methodical removal by an undertaker of the headstones and bodies to relocate them to a new cemetery. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.
Often when a cemetery move is planned there are a lot of challenges along the way. Visit any cemetery and you’ll find headstones that are broken or unreadable. If the tombstones are on a hill, they may have shifted down the hill as time has passed and no longer be near the original burial-place. If you do manage to locate the bodies it is quite likely that what is left is unidentifiable. The descendants of the person may have moved on to another state and may not even know their ancestor is buried there. There may be no identifications on the body, and few can afford to go to the extreme with DNA testing. Your best bet for identification is if you could find cemetery records or WPA maps done in the 1920’s and 30’s. The problem becomes more challenging if the records were destroyed perhaps in a fire or intentionally as the holder may not have realized the value of the documents. Even with the best intentions, identifying the remains in the cemetery can be a lost cause. This is why when a cemetery is moved the graves are often collected and reburied in a mass grave.
What really surprised me as I spoke with my co-worker was that the success rate of moving cemeteries is pretty low. Take for example, before the construction of the Alum Creek Reservoir located in Delaware County, Ohio, there was a cemetery that had to be relocated. The Cheshire Cemetery was to be relocated further to the west. The Army Corps of Engineers oversaw the move, but even so they only had a fifty percent success rate of finding and relocating the bodies. During any relocation of a cemetery you are at the mercy of the contractor performing the work. There are some that are very ethical and take extra care to locate and remove the graves, and there are those that want to make a quick buck or think that they can get away with moving the obvious things (like the headstones). It is unfortunate that such poor care can occur. At Alum Creek Reservoir there are occasionally reports of coffins (with and without bodies) surfacing on the shores and the Army Corps has to collect and rebury those found.
You may be asking, “Aren’t there Federal or State laws to govern these situations?” The answer is that it depends on the location of the cemetery. The laws regarding the removal of a cemetery and its remains vary widely from state to state. The only Federal protection for cemeteries occurs if they are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In order for a cemetery to be considered for the National Register it must fall into a very narrow set of circumstances. The cemetery may have been designed by a landscape architect, contain people of importance, or for some reason the people embodied there could supply information that is an important part of our understanding of history or prehistory. Places that don't meet those criteria don't get any care beyond being recorded, and the project moves on. It then falls upon the state or local municipality to determine what happens, and often the fear of bad press is the biggest motivator. In Ohio, the only state laws that pertain to cemeteries are related to vandalism and desecration. Other states, like Indiana for example, have done a much better job of protecting the cemeteries by requiring a Certificate of Appropriateness if you are going to build within 50 feet of a cemetery. Plans have to be submitted to the state, and they have to approve them before they'll let you build.
I would like to encourage each of you to get in touch with your local state representative and encourage a dialogue about the current laws in your state. Ask those tough questions, and try to keep up with the news stories that you come across relating to cemeteries. There are a number of organizations with the goal of protecting our cemeteries, and I suggest that you seek them out. Without a call to action and substantive laws on the books there may be nothing standing in the way of building a housing development right on top of a cemetery. Our ancestors cannot speak up to protect their resting places, but we certainly can. Let’s treat our ancestral burial places with the respect that they deserve.