Preserving Historic Cemeteries
At the Ohio Historical Society, we periodically get questions from Ohioans who want to preserve neglected cemeteries. Our Ohio Historic Preservation Office has put together some information on the subject, and with Memorial Day fresh in our minds this seems like a good time to share it.
Begin by Figuring Out Who Owns the Cemetery
When discussing the preservation of cemeteries, the first question you must ask and answer is "Who owns the cemetery?" There are basically three types of ownership in Ohio: township, municipal and private.
Ohio laws pertaining to cemeteries under the jurisdiction of townships can be found in Ohio Revised Code Chapter 517; Ohio Revised Code Chapter 759 pertains to cemeteries under the jurisdiction of municipalities (cities, villages and joint municipal/township cemeteries); Ohio Revised Code Chapter 1721 pertains to cemeteries under the jurisdiction of (private) cemetery associations. Copies of the Ohio Revised Code can be found at your local library, county courthouse, through legal counsel or online at codes.ohio.gov/orc.
Contact the Correct Local Officials
Once ownership is established, the concerned parties should contact local officials responsible for the cemetery's care. For townships, this is the board of township trustees; for cities, the director of public service; for villages, the mayor or board of cemetery trustees; for jointly-owned cemeteries, the board of township trustees and the legislative authorities of the municipalities; and for cemetery associations, the board of trustees of such associations.
Anyone interested in preventing or reporting vandalism at cemeteries should contact local law enforcement officers. According to Ohio Revised Code Chapter 2909.05, vandalism and other offenses against burial places is a fourth degree felony. Additionally, a violation of Ohio Revised Code Chapter 2927.11, defacing commemorative markers, is a second-degree misdemeanor. Contact the county prosecutor concerning such offenses.
It may also be useful to contact legal counsel as well as your state and local representatives and senators. Before approaching elected officials for assistance, it is important to gather information on the cemetery's condition.
Raise Public Awareness
You can raise public awareness about the need to preserve and care for cemeteries by contacting the local media as well as sponsoring tours of cemeteries.
At the state level, the Ohio Genealogical Society is a leading advocate for cemetery preservation.
The Ohio Cemetery Preservation Society is a non-profit membership organization and clearinghouse for publications, events and information about cemetery significance and preservation.
The State of Ohio's Department of Commerce, Division of Real Estate, accepts complaints from any person against any individual or entity operating or maintaining a cemetery registered with the Division of Real Estate. The complaint must relate to an activity, practice, policy or procedure of the cemetery that may adversely affect the interest of an owner or family member of an owner of a cemetery lot or burial, entombment or columbarium right.
However, the Division of Real Estate is only authorized to conduct investigations of cemeteries that have been active within the past 25 years. The Cemetery Dispute Resolution Commission carries out such investigations. Ohio law pertaining to such matters can be found in Ohio Revised Code Chapter 4767. Cemetery complaint forms are available from: Division of Real Estate & Professional Licensing, 615 Superior Ave., 12th Floor, Cleveland, OH 44113, 216.787.5669.
At the national level, the Association for Gravestone Studies is a leading advocate of cemetery preservation. The association also has an Ohio Chapter.
For information about gravestone documentation, gravestone repair and building public awareness, consult the book A Graveyard Preservation Primer by Lynette Strangstad, published by the American Association for State and Local History. A useful guide to cemetery symbolism is Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister, published by Gibbs Smith.