How to Protect Historic Cemeteries

Get Permission

Prior to any protective measures, get permission to access the cemetery. Identify the organization with legal jurisdiction over the cemetery, if there is one, and get written permission for preservation.

If it is on public land, contact the federal, state, or local government entity with the authority to protect the property. If the cemetery is accessible through private land, contact the landowner or his/her representative and negotiate access, in addition to obtaining written permission.

Cemetery associations govern many Texas cemeteries. If a cemetery association is involved, become familiar with its rules and regulations.

Record

Concerned citizens can protect historic cemeteries by documenting their locations and boundaries. If a cemetery’s boundaries are not clearly established in the county deed record, consider recording its existence through a Notice of Existence form and/or a HTC designation. This may be the single most valuable act of preservation for any cemetery. The designation process may happen at any time, and is superior to simply recording the boundaries.

While both the HTC designation and the Notice of Existence forms record the cemetery boundaries with the county clerk, the designation provides additional critical information that the Notice of Existence forms do not offer. The THC has created two types of notice forms:

In all cases, however, balance common sense with practical considerations. There are times when publicizing the location of a cemetery is detrimental to its preservation. Vandals can desecrate secluded cemeteries that are located away from the eyes of the protective community. Keep statistical and historical information readily available for public use, but be discreet about the exact location of vulnerable cemeteries.

Security

Before any plans are made for preservation, take steps to secure the cemetery. If feasible, contact law enforcement officials and ask them to add the cemetery to their patrols. Surrounding landowners can be strong champions for a historic cemetery. Request their advice when creating security measures for the cemetery. Develop a good relationship with the local police department or sheriff’s office. Contact neighbors living near the cemetery and ask them to report any suspicious activity to the police. Let the neighbors know that an effort is underway to restore the cemetery and tell them who to contact if they notice any problems.

Erect fencing that is appropriate for the site. Livestock can knock down and trample gravemarkers, desecrating a cemetery. Deter vandals from damaging urban cemeteries by installing fencing that is easily seen through, allowing police and concerned citizens to see and report illegal activity. Fencing is the visual boundary of a cemetery, and should reflect the boundaries recorded in the deed record. When appropriate, use lights to illuminate the dark corners of the cemetery.

Do not restrict access to cemeteries, but consider posting rules and regulations. Post signs at entrances to let visitors know who to contact for access and to show that there is an active interest in the cemetery.

While vandalism and theft of gravemarkers, tombs, and cemetery features seem to be the most disturbing threats to any cemetery, simple neglect of maintenance is perhaps a more widespread and damaging problem.

Historical markers, cemetery clean-up days, and publicity efforts are tools that will increase public awareness of these important cultural resources. Such awareness and education are among the best ways to guarantee the preservation of a cemetery.

National, state, and local historical markers provide a focal point for drawing public attention to cemeteries. Historical markers provide an overview of the individual or institutions associated with a site. For information on the various options for historical markers offered by the THC, contact the History Programs Division at 512-463-5853, or history@thc.texas.gov.

Survey

After the cemetery has been protected by recording its boundaries in the county deed records through the HTC designation process, plan a survey of individual cemetery features. Cemetery features include gravemarkers, fences, and landscape elements. RIP Guardian participants receive samples for completing surveys and creating maps, databases, and other tools. Contact Cemetery Preservation Program staff for more information.

Create a map of the cemetery grounds that includes the location of trees, bushes, fences, gates, and other landscape features. Note the location and orientation of each gravemarker, mausoleum, crypt, and monument. Include the orientation of all marked and known unmarked graves. Assign each physical feature (headstones, footstones, fences, benches, etc.) a control number that will tie together the written, photographic, and map records.

Photograph all cemetery features, and label each image with the corresponding control number. If using a digital camera, adjust camera settings to record images between 1200 and 1600 pixels in order to capture images of sufficient resolution. Files should be backed up and stored in a retrievable method. Digital images should be labeled clearly with grid location and date. Images recorded with black and white film using a 35mm camera should also be labeled with grid location and date. Black and white film tends to be more stable than color, and 100ASA is a slower speed, which may provide a sharper image.

Try recording information in the morning in order to read partially obscured inscriptions. Since many gravemarkers face east, the morning sun may make inscriptions more legible. When it is not practical to record in the morning, use a mirror to angle the sun onto the gravemarker to illuminate indistinct letters and numbers. Never use chalk, talc, flour, shaving cream, etc. as an aid to reading inscriptions. These materials are very difficult to remove and may contain chemicals, oils, emollients, or bacteria that can damage the delicate stones.

Develop a database or written record that includes a control number, date of record, name of cemetery, type of feature (headstone, footstone, crypt, obelisk, etc.), size of feature, description of material used to make the feature (limestone, granite, marble, wood, iron, zinc, etc.), condition of the feature, vital information from the markers (name, dates, epitaph, etc.), description of marker carvings, and any other identifying characteristics.

Record each gravemarker and feature in a systematic method. Divide the cemetery into sections and record the information down the rows. After completing a section, spot check it to make sure nothing was missed. Have another person verify the recorded information to make sure there are no errors are in the transcription.