May 4, 2022

How to Preserve Historic Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

With beautiful architecture, cultural sites, and landscapes across the country, it can be easy to forget about some of our less heralded historic places, like cemeteries and burial grounds. Even still, these places are important to everyday American life and culture, and what's more, they're present in nearly every community.

Here are 10 tips for preserving historic cemeteries and burial grounds.

A volunteer is dry ice dusting a headstone in an effort to preserve the material.

photo by: NCPTT Media/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

A volunteer dry ice dusting a headstone.

1. Determine—and coordinate with—the congregation, owners, or governing agency responsible for the land. Cemeteries or burial grounds may be associated with a religious organization, located on private property (which the descendants of those buried there might still own), or under the control of a state or local government. In any event, it’s critical to coordinate with the site's owners at the outset.

2. Start a support group. A nonpartisan and nondenominational “friends” group can work as a neutral party in planning for the cemetery’s preservation and maintenance. In addition, a secular group could be eligible for state and federal funding from which a religious group might be exempt.

3. Look for funding and partners. Creativity is key, as there are not as many resources available for burial ground restoration as for other types of preservation projects. That said, their highly local nature makes them good projects for partnerships with historic societies or civic groups like the Junior League and Jaycees.

4. Pursue historic site designation. It can be difficult to get a cemetery listed on the National Register of Historic Places unless it is part of a historically significant property or is in a historic district. However, getting listed on a state or local register is still beneficial, as it can make the site eligible for funding—as well as offer recognition and prestige.

5. Arrange for training and technical assistance. Having volunteers with the necessary skills ―such as surveying and documentation, stone cleaning and resetting, and site maintenance―can be an critical cost-saving measure in a restoration process. The National Center for Preservation Technology and Trainingpart of the National Park Service—is a valuable resource for more information.

6. Create a map and conduct surveys. Having accurate documentation of what is on the site is critically important to the preservation process, as it creates a record to work from in the future. The mapping and surveying process should include noting all graves (marked and unmarked); pathways, walls, and fences (both for the perimeter and enclosures); trees and other vegetation; and any other features or buildings.

7. Consider future uses. Before moving into the physical restoration process, it’s important to think about the future visitation level of the burial ground. Is it in an urban area and likely to get a lot of traffic? Or is it more rural and therefore less likely to have many people wandering through? If you expect heavier visitation, take that impact into account when planning.

A group of volunteers work together to clean a historic tombstone.

photo by: NCPTT Media/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

Volunteers learn best practices for preserving tombstones at a Nacogdoches, Texas cemetery.

8. Prioritize! Loose or unbalanced markers can be a safety hazard for workers and visitors alike. Put stabilization at the top of the priority list. Likewise, address any landscape issues that could be dangerous, such as unstable surfaces or crumbling retaining walls. After the safety issues are resolved, move on to fixes like iron and stonework.

9. Develop a maintenance plan. Cemeteries and burial grounds require significant ongoing maintenance following the initial restoration. A groundskeeper can manage the routine landscape work, but should do so in a way that doesn’t damage or disturb the grave markers. In addition, all stones should be inspected periodically for wear-and-tear and be gently cleaned of debris.

10. Make it visitor-friendly. A few amenities such as trash cans and informational signs can go a long way in making a historic cemetery or burial ground welcoming. In addition, visitor-friendly activities such as tours can draw attention to the restoration work.

Learn More

Adapted from Preservation of Historic Burial Grounds, a National Trust publication by Lynette Strangstad. A version of this story was published on 12/22/2015.

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Sarah Heffern headshot

Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

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