What to Do if a Cemetery is Threatened or Destroyed

Contact Local Authorities

Should you see a cemetery being disturbed by vandals, looters, or construction equipment, whether or not it is marked by gravemarkers or a fence, call local law enforcement authorities at once. Texas state laws protect cemeteries and provide a legal framework if remains must be removed. All burials must be removed according to legal statutes before a landowner can use the property for any other purpose. The same protection applies to individual burials. Review related laws in the Texas Health and Safety Code and share it with local authorities.

Stay Involved

After contacting local law enforcement authorities, notify the county historical commission (CHC), local heritage society, newspapers, other local publications, and the Texas Historical Commission (THC) about the destruction of a cemetery. Stay involved. Do not condone the willful destruction of cemeteries with silence or by turning a blind eye. The memory of those who have lived before us should not be forsaken for reasons of expediency or economics.

Consider Civil Action

Criminal action, or a court trial, may not always be the most appropriate method of dispute resolution. A civil lawsuit may be the only means of resolving a conflict involving a cemetery. The following are two examples:

  • A CHC in Central Texas surveyed the historic cemeteries in the county. Several years later, the fence and gravemarkers along the boundary of one of the surveyed family cemeteries had been removed. No gravemarkers remained to provide evidence of the graveyard; thus, only the survey proved the cemetery’s existence. Since the site was being considered for development, the records of the CHC were crucial to the future disposition of the land. In this case, the descendants of those interred in the cemetery filed suit and were compensated in an out-of-court settlement.
  • In North Texas, a cemetery occupied a prime lot in one of the largest residential developments in Texas. Developers petitioned the court to remove the cemetery’s dedication so that the remains and gravemarkers could be moved to a perpetual care cemetery. A local preservation group, along with the descendants of those buried in the cemetery, led a vocal protest that received wide media attention. The court decided the cemetery should remain in its original site. With the cemetery now preserved, the new residents of the development can appreciate the cemetery as a reminder of their local heritage.

Vandalism and Looting

While it is disturbing to lose cemeteries to development pressures, it is perhaps even more disturbing to lose them to criminal acts of vandalism and looting. Vandalism can range from intentionally pushing over gravemarkers to spray painting graffiti on cemetery chapel walls. The demand by collectors for vintage artifacts and architectural and landscaping antiques has contributed to the increasing disappearance of elaborately carved gravemarkers, sculptures, urns, finials, benches, gates, and fencing from cemeteries. This demand also leads to the digging and looting of graves for valuable objects such as jewelry, firearms, buttons, and buckles.

If a cemetery is destroyed, use that fact as a rallying point for the preservation of a community’s remaining cemeteries. Nothing can substitute for the preservation efforts of individuals and groups. Citizens must develop an active role in the preservation of local cemeteries.