U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service
Individual and collective burial places can reflect and represent in important ways the cultural values and practices of the past that help instruct us about who we are as a people. Yet for profoundly personal reasons, familial and cultural descendants of the interred often view graves and cemeteries with a sense of reverence and devout sentiment that can overshadow objective evaluation. Therefore, cemeteries and graves are among those properties that ordinarily are not considered eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places unless they meet special requirements. The National Register Criteria for Evaluation include considerations by which burial places may be eligible for inclusion in the National Register. To qualify for listing under Criteria A (association with events), B (association with people), or C (design), a cemetery or grave must meet not only the basic criteria, but also the special requirements of Criteria Considerations C or D, relating to graves and cemeteries.
Burial places evaluated under Criterion D for the importance of the information they may impart do not have to meet the requirements for the Criteria Considerations. These sites generally have been considered as archeological sites. It is important to remember that although cemeteries and other burial places may be evaluated for their potential to yield information, they also may possess great value to those who are related culturally to the people buried there.
Roughly 1,700 cemeteries and burial places in all parts of the country have been entered in the National Register since 1966, either as individual listings or because they are part of historic districts. These numbers reflect the essential presence of burial places in the cultural landscape. Various factors have contributed to the continuing trend of registration. Clearly important is the growing literature on funerary art and architecture, and on landscapes. With greater frequency since the 1960s, studies in American culture have treated not only the form and symbolism of gravemarkers, but also the social and spiritual values expressed in burial placements and the organization of burying grounds including the different attitudes about death held by the various cultural groups that make up our society.
Though the tradition of cleaning up and beautifying old cemeteries is a long one, the current interest in these subjects partly owes to widespread incidents of abandonment, theft, vandalism, real estate development, and environmental hazards such as acid rain, which have pushed cemeteries to the forefront of preservation issues. National Register listing is an important step in preserving cemeteries because such recognition often sparks community interest in the importance of these sites in conveying the story of its past. Listing also gives credibility to State and local efforts to preserve these resources for their continuing contribution to the community's identity. The documentation contained in surveys and nominations of these historic burying places especially those cemeteries that are neglected or threatened is the key to their better protection and management. This information has a variety of uses, including public education; planning by local, State, or Federal agencies; or publication. The purpose of this bulletin is to guide Federal agencies, State historic preservation offices, Certified Local Governments, preservation professionals, and interested groups and individuals in evaluating, documenting, and nominating cemeteries, burial places and related types of property to the National Register.
The resources or types of properties relating to mortuary customs in the United States and its associated territories vary from region to region and age to age according to prevailing spiritual beliefs and methods of caring for the dead. The burial mound of prehistoric populations in the Mississippi River Valley, the tablet-filled graveyard of the Colonial period, the park-like "rural" cemetery of the early-to-mid 19th century, and the Art Deco mausoleum and crematorium of the modern industrial age all are distinct manifestations of the cultures and environments in which they were created. These places are capable of providing insight to the cultural values of preceding generations unless they have been looted, severely vandalized, or compromised by development or natural forces. To measure the significance of burial places in American culture, we must know something of their geographic extent, the historic events affecting their creation, the span of time in which they evolved, their ceremonial functions, their aesthetic value, the reasons for the location and orientation of graves, and the underlying meaning of their embellishments.
This bulletin defines the term "burial place" broadly as a location where the dead are prepared for burial or cremation, or where the remains of the dead are placed. A burial place may be a single feature, ranging from the grandly monumented tomb of a national leader to an isolated grave expediently prepared alongside a battlefield or emigrant route. Other burial places are more complex, such as compound burial sites and cemeteries developed after deliberate selection and arrangement of the landscape. In Native American and Pacific Island cultures, certain burial places were ephemeral because they took place above ground. However, where evidence remains of cremation areas and sites traditionally used for caffold and other encasement burials, such places would be encompassed by the general classification, burial place.
Cemeteries and burial places traditionally have been regarded as sacred and inviolate, especially by those whose ancestors are buried there. Recently, the concern of Native Americans about appropriate and respectful disposition of burial remains and objects of their descendants has resulted in greater sensitivity toward those for whom a burial place has familial or cultural importance. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-601) sets out the rights of Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations regarding human remains, funerary and sacred objects, and other culturally significant objects for which they can demonstrate lineal descent or cultural affiliation. One of the main purposes of the legislation is to protect Native American graves and related items, and to control their removal. The Act encourages the avoidance of archeological sites that contain burials and also makes Federal agencies responsible for consulting Indian Tribes or Native Hawaiian groups when they encounter such sites, either in the course of planned excavations, or through inadvertent discovery. Consultation is required to determine the appropriate treatment of human remains and cultural objects. Many States, also, have passed legislation that addresses the discovery and disposition of graves.
Several factors resulted in a decision to omit detailed guidance on identifying, evaluating, and documenting archeological sites that contain burials, and on appropriate methods for studying them, from this bulletin. These factors include the specialized nature of investigating these burials, ongoing debates over the appropriate treatment of such sites, and evolving policies and procedures relating to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Nevertheless, references, examples, and brief discussions of prehistoric burials appear throughout this bulletin in recognition that they may be eligible for National Register listing.
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