Now about that cemetery in the backyard…

Idyllic pastures


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.     

Revolutionary War veteran, died 1850


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.     

Abigail Wellman: died April 12, 1817, 50 years old


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?     

Family cemetery, upstate New York


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.



Filed under Commentary

12 responses to “Now about that cemetery in the backyard…

  1. Loved your post! Before starting genealogy I think I’d have been a little freaked by a cemetery nearby, but now it wouldn’t bother me (I think). The law links are interesting… Thanks for sharing.

  2. Fantastic I would love a cemetery on my property.
    I would buy a property simply based on that fact alone.

  3. I have a website……Right now it only has Cemeteries posted from Putnam County, Ohio. I would love to place a link on my site to your blog…is that possible?

  4. Benjamin

    These family lots need to be preserved, they are a glimpse into our past. In addition, there should be some respect for the dead in the sense of allowing them to lay where they rest.

    • madelyn reynolds

      I agree completely wth you Benjamin! In fact I’m on this site trying to learn the laws of Tenn…as I want to attempt to save an old family cemetery of
      my mother’s “people”. In fact my own greatgrandmother is there as well
      as at least 10 others that are directly related. Sadly, it is no longer on
      land owned by any of our family. It dates back over 200 years. I’m beginning efforts to try and ensure that it will not be disturbed. I would
      be most appreciative if anyone reading this has experience on this topic and would contact me with ideas. I’m working on learning who the land
      owner is at this time. It’s in a fairly rural area…and owner doesn’t live on
      this property. I’m very interested in my geneology and history of my family. I can’t imagine that anyone would not respect a lg. family
      cemetery. Hope it’s not too late. We certainly need to have a lot more
      respect for all older things. We are becoming way too much of a disposable nation. History and preservation of those of us that have
      gone on before is a basic respect. I sure hope the current land owners
      agree. Unfortunately, I live on the West Coast. Makes this venture even more difficult.

      • I appreciated your comments on the saving family cemetery site on the web. I am trying to prevent my family’s cemetery from being relocated from its present site. It dates to 1832 and is quite unique with large ornate markers. The present land owners have a house nearby and want to move it to another private property. Did you have any luck saving yours or do you have any advice for me ..thanks Senter Jackson Jonesborough, Tn

      • G.E. Anderson

        Hi Senter:

        You might want to see if this pdf from the state of TN offers some guidance (…/arch_historic-cemeteries.pdf). The full title of the pdf is called, Historic Cemeteries in Tennessee –, in case the link doesn’t come through and you need to google it. If not, then perhaps contacting the office directly to see what other options they could offer.

        Best of luck.

  5. Marilyn Hanna

    Very interesting blog.

  6. anonomyssy

    I have a dear friend whose home is right next to a small cemetary…I thought she was NUTS buying it…(you could literally throw a stone and hit a tombstone from her side sliding glass door if the treeline were gone…but they’ve become stewards of the cemetary over the years, they really love it, and their historic home.

    • G.E. Anderson

      I think there’s a difference between choosing to own an historic house and knowing there is an historic cemterey nearby versus living by a cemetery that’s still in use. Although I have been told that either situation guarantees quiet neighbors!

  7. Pingback: Year-end countdown: The #3 most popular post of 2014 | Beyond The Ghosts...

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