Homeowners wanting to purchase that historic 18th or 19th century farmhouse would do well to think it through before handing over the escrow down payment. Many of these lovely old places come with an unexpected little extra located in the far corners of the property—the family cemetery.
Finding out about these potential new neighbors generates mixed reactions. For some, it only enhances the overall attraction and connection to local history while for others it’s an immediate deal breaker – especially if it’s a cultural no-no.
This past April, the New York Times reported on one potential buyer who refused to even look at a $3 million dollar property because it was next to a cemetery while another discovered an 1812 marker in the front lawn after escrow closed. Figuring it was just part of owning a house constructed in the late 1600s, the owner shrugged and added the upkeep into his regular lawn maintenance duties.
Then there are those who feel they’ve hit the jackpot.
One Maine family was ecstatic to discover a late 18th century cemetery lurking in their backyard. After clearing out numerous piles of brush and tree branches, the cemetery was re-dedicated with a pretty little memorial plaque and even got its own website.
Old family cemeteries are a lot more common than most people realize and they’re not just found in the New England or mid-Atlantic areas. There are just as many private cemeteries located in the South. But let’s not forget the nation’s longest rural graveyard either; the Oregon Trail. A leisurely drive along the pastoral byways in all of these states will reveal any number of weathered headstones standing guard on a lonely hill.
Old cemeteries encountered rough times during the recent housing boom when developers pushed further out into previously rural areas. A 2006 Washington Post article highlighted the challenges some of these forgotten sites faced in Tennessee.
“State archaeologist Nick Fielder estimates that there are 20,000 family cemeteries in Tennessee, but there’s no way to know for sure. There’s no central inventory, and most documentation is done by historians and volunteers who scour records and trudge through meadows in search of graves.
Fielder says about 100 family cemeteries fall in the path of development in Tennessee each year, about two times as many as a decade ago. Under state law, he said, there’s nothing sacred about sites. Relatives of the deceased have no legal leverage over family plots they don’t own, and landowners who can pay to move a cemetery need only a judge’s approval.”
Thankfully, the lucky ones are removed to a new location while others, like Comet Lodge Cemetery in Seattle, get stuck in a very odd kind of limbo. Interestingly enough, this particular area is now home to many Asians who would consider it very unlucky to live near a cemetery.
So what happens if you buy that gorgeous fixer-upper and (gulp) find out there are a few more residents on the place than originally thought?
Well, the first thing to understand is that most states do not consider the abandoned family cemetery on your property to be yours, regardless of whether you hold the title. You cannot just simply up and move the bodies on your own. However, since rules governing this process vary around the country, it’s best to review cemetery laws at the state level. For example, here is commentary on Florida’s regulations, a link to New York State’s cemetery law manual, the friendly, Q&A styled version for Virginia, and an artistically presented handbook from South Carolina.
Barring that, there’s always the option of simply leaving the new neighbors alone. After all, it’s not very likely they’ll be throwing loud parties anytime soon.