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 [graphic] National Register Bulletin Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Cemeteries and Burial Places

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U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service


General Approach

Oak Grive Cemetery
The 1855 plan of the Oak Grove Cemetery in Gloucester, Essex County, Massachusetts, is am important source of cemetery documentation (James O'Gorman, 1975)

Determining the significance of a burial place requires a systematic investigation of the property and its historic context. Once assembled, the information is used to establish whether or not the burial place is a significant representative of its type, reflecting an important aspect of American history or prehistory.

Documentation begins with compiling information on the background of the site and its development over time. Such information would include the date the burial place was established, the period in which it was active, the circumstances under which it was established and maintained, and the cultural groups, individuals, organizations, agencies, or corporations responsible for initial and subsequent development. For a burial place with design distinction, such as a large, comprehensively designed cemetery, information should be provided about those who designed the overall landscape and its architectural features, and those who carved or fabricated individual monuments and grave markers. An analysis of components of the burial place would include identification of methods of construction and manufacturing techniques, as described in stone cutters' handbooks, fabricators' catalogs, and professional publications. Characteristic plant materials, layout of burial plots and circulation features, acreage encompassed, and the purpose or function of areas and features within the site boundaries also are important. The researcher should determine when newer tracts were added to the site and describe the site in relation to its surrounding landscape.

Siting of burial places normally was carefully considered in both historic and prehistoric times. Chinese workers who came to Hawaii at the turn of the century founded fraternal societies that enabled them to maintain strong cultural, political, religious, and family ties with China. One of the chief concerns of these societies was care of the elderly and disabled and burial of the dead. It was important that the society's building and the adjacent cemetery be located in a beautiful, spacious area, on sloping ground, with a good view, so that spirits could roam freely. The Chee Ying Society, Hawaii County, Hawaii, is an example of such a society building, dependencies, and affiliated cemeteries.

Researchers should study the immediate setting; while the growth of a town, changing agricultural patterns, or other factors may have altered the surrounding landscape over time, often the basis for burial site selection is evident in local landforms in the relationship of site to topographic features or traditional routes of travel. Researchers also should consult records of land use for verification of the reason a burial place developed at a particular location, and not make assumptions. For example, in the communities of Colonial New England settled by Puritans, graveyards were perceived as secular, in conformance with Calvinist doctrine. In that region, the mere proximity of an early graveyard to a church property does not necessarily signify a historical relationship between church and burying place.

The arrangement of graves within a burial ground is a significant aspect of character also. In vernacular burial grounds, the relation of one grave to another may be irregular not in compact rows. Such informal placement may be a sign of haphazard development over time, but it could also relate to the customs of a particular cultural group. The Christian belief in resurrection of the body after death prescribed earth burials for the faithful. Lot arrangement frequently was influenced by the scripturally-based tradition of orienting the foot of the grave toward the east to place the dead in appropriate position for arising at the day of final judgment.

The researcher should learn as much as possible about the character of the site as it was first developed or appropriated for burial purposes based on documentary views, photographs, plats, plans and specifications, business and organization records, local histories, and oral tradition. The researcher then is prepared to describe the present condition of the site and determine how well it reflects the period in which it was developed.

Metairie Cemetery
Environmental factors can be important in understanding cemeteries. Because of the high water table, above ground cemeteries, such as the Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans, Orleans Parish Louisiana, are a distinctive regional feature of southern Louisiana. (Donna Fricker, 1991)

The landscape and developed features of a burial place should be described in narrative form and represented graphically by means of a site plan or map. When it is known that significant historic features are missing or modified, as for example in the realignment of road or driveway, such missing features should be described and their former placement indicated graphically in dashed or dotted outline. Not all of the features listed below will appear in all burial places; however, the narrative description and site plan would include, but not necessarily be limited to the following, where applicable:


  • general topography, including indication of the gradient (or slope) and elevation of the site in relation to the larger setting in which it is located;
  • natural features such as streams, gullies, hills, and indigenous trees; naturalistic developed features such as ponds, lakes, or landforms;
  • plat, or layout of cemetery plots, whether a rigid gridiron imposed on the site or an organization of plots conforming to natural contours;
  • circulation system of roads, driveways, pathways, noting whether such features have axial alignment or are winding or curving; structural features of the system, such as bridges and drainage systems; and distinctive materials, such as cobble gutters or stone paths; views and vistas within the site from principal access points; views and vistas external to the site;
  • characteristic vegetation, including the overstory of trees, understory of shrubs and grasses, exotic plant materials used as filler in burial plots, ornamental flower beds, and specimen plantings;
  • gateways, fences, and hedges used for boundary and spatial definition;
  • typical plot defining features such as wooden palings, iron fencing, and concrete curbing;
  • prevalence of individual plot mausoleums, vaults, or above-surface tombs, and indication of the range and variety of individual grave markers;
  • entrance signs, directional markers, outdoor lighting fixtures, and small-scale site furnishings such as benches, planters, ornamental sculpture, and fountains;
  • maintenance and service features such as soil disposal and waste storage areas, greenhouses, tool sheds, and pumphouses; and
  • buildings such as churches, memorial chapels, gatehouses, offices, residences, crematories, mausoleums, and columbariums.

Research and Field Investigation

The object of the research phase is twofold: 1) to establish the contexts, or historical and cultural themes for documenting the property's significance, and 2) to determine the property's physical character and appearance during the important period(s) of its use or development. Toward the first end, general reference works on American burial customs, historical development of cemeteries and mortuary art and architecture; professional and trade journals, community histories, and ethnographic studies may be consulted to place the property in an overall cultural and historical framework.

Next, all available primary source material on the property under study should be assembled from church and municipal records, fraternal organizations, and cemetery corporations, as may be appropriate. Land records, maps and plats, census records, court documents, local histories, family and business papers, genealogies, newspapers, and other sources can provide information on settlement patterns, community development, and the lives of important people. Detailed information on the development of a particular burial place will be found in cemetery plats, architectural plans and drawings, landscape plans and planting keys, manufacturers' catalog orders, monument makers' statements of account, and gardeners' and sextons' diary entries. Library collections may provide documentary views and descriptions in the form of prints, early photographs, newspaper accounts, and advertisements. Interviews with church sextons, cemetery superintendents, and descendants of original owners of family plots may be useful. Archeologists also will review reports and other documentation on related or comparable sites to frame appropriate research questions that could be illuminated by a burial site investigation. It also is important to consult with any cultural group with which a burial place or cemetery is affiliated or for which it has special meaning.

The object of field work is to analyze the property's present physical character in comparison with the property's appearance during the period of significance as documented through research. Field investigation may help establish the period of significance; in any case it produces a record of the characteristic features remaining from the period of significance, and changes through time. It establishes the present extent and integrity of the property.

Site Plans

The essential aid to conducting field work is a site plan on which the distribution of physical elements is recorded graphically. A cemetery plat may be used effectively as a complement to a site plan, but it is not interchangeable. If a base map of the site is not available from the local planning agency, the cemetery plat may become the model from which to produce a sketch plan of the site. Planning base maps showing contour intervals as well as building ground plans are most useful because they portray with precision the siting of particular features on level ground and at prominent elevations. If a complex burial place underwent distinct episodes of development over a long period of use, a series of maps of comparable scale overlaying a base map may be useful in recording the evolutionary changes, either for the sake of analysis or as an exhibit to accompany the nomination. Whenever possible, all graphic information should be reduced to 8 1/2" x 11" format, or folded to that size, when submitted to the National Register.


Photographs are indispensable as records of the present condition of the burial place and its characteristic features. When compared with historic views which are not required, but which can be helpful when available contemporary photographs assist the researcher in gaining an understanding of the phases of surface development over time. For purposes of preparing the National Register nomination for a graveyard or cemetery, it may not be practical in every case to photograph each gravemarker. It is important, however, to provide a number of general views to illustrate the overall character of the landform and its developed features. These should be supplemented by a variety of close views of individual monuments and markers to convey the range and quality of materials and workmanship. Care should be taken to photograph gravemarkers from near surface level and at times and under conditions when the high contrast of light and shadow will give sharpness and clarity to inscriptions and sculptural relief. In addition to the form, embellishment, and position of gravemarkers in relationship to other markers, epitaphs and vital inscriptions are an important aspect of the cultural content of cemeteries. If landscape design is significant, photographs of plantings, circulation patterns, and other features may be necessary to adequately represent the site.

As a practical matter, good photographic and transcription records for a historic graveyard or cemetery are highly desirable. Such records, keyed to a plat, produce scholarly archives and preserve some information should the cemetery suffer loss as a result of theft, vandalism, or damage from natural causes. Moreover, comprehensive documentation may form the basis of a cemetery maintenance and conservation master plan. Such work is labor intensive, but genealogical societies and other volunteers may be enlisted to a duly authorized and properly supervised effort.


Archeological field work and documentation involves scientific techniques that invariably call for qualified professional supervision. Legal clearances normally are required. Where archeological investigations have been authorized in accordance with Federal, State, and local laws; aerial infrared photography; ground-penetrating radar, and proton magnetometers are among the remote sensing techniques and devices that may be used to locate below-grade ground disturbances and gauge the density and state of preservation of burial deposits without invading the site. Dense materials, such as stone, metal, and ceramic are revealed in sharp contrast against the background of soils. Bone and other organic matter also register in these sensing techniques, to varying degrees. These techniques can be expensive.

Surface investigation to determine the extent of a burial site is most effective when combined with carefully controlled testing which allow skeletal remains to be preserved intact, and minimizes impact to the site generally. Site plans, stratigraphic profiles, scale drawings, and photographs make up the graphic record of an archeological site. They illustrate the geographic bounds of the area investigated, the depth of testing, and the concentration and relative position of the artifacts and site features. Documentation also includes a report describing the range and variety of burial objects; their age as determined by laboratory radiocarbon dating or other means, as appropriate and comparative analysis of other dated materials. The functions of the artifacts, inferred from form and placement, the identification of the cultural group that performed the burial, and architectural and associated features of the site such as vaults, chambers, cairns, and landscaping are essential parts of the archeological record accumulated for analysis and evaluation.

Boundaries and Periods of Significance

Using the information collected from research and systematic investigation of the site,the researcher should begin to establish the scope and extent of the area to be proposed for nomination and the period of time during which the nominated area was significant in American prehistory, history, or culture. Only after determining the geographical bounds of the nominated area and that period of time in which the property achieved the qualities which make it eligible for the National Register, is it possible to enumerate the features which contribute to the significance of the property.


LaPointe Indian Cemetery
The traditional gravehouses, Christian crosses, and other features at LaPointe Indian Cemetery in Ashland County, Wisconsin, possess important associations with the Chippewa Indians in northern Wisconsin. (Michael W. Weburg, 1976)

Determining ownership of burial places sometimes is complex. In some cases, family cemeteries on private land have been exempted from deeds and do not belong to the property owner on whose land they are located, but to the descendants of the family. When small private cemeteries in rural areas have been abandoned and are no longer maintained, they become the domain of the current landowner. For the volunteer group or family descendants trying to establish clear title and access to an abandoned cemetery, legal research and negotiation may be required. For documentation and assessment purposes, however, researchers may refer to deed records to establish the most likely owner. Sometimes the corporate body or trust fund that once provided care for a country cemetery, though inactive for many years, was never legally dissolved. The rights of Indian tribes, Native Hawaiians, or other groups as established by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, other Federal laws, and State legislation also must be considered in determining ownership.

Typically, in early community cemeteries founded by voluntary associations, the cemetery land remained under ownership of the founding organization while the individual plots were separately held by the original proprietors and their heirs. In the West, where the earliest established community cemeteries often were founded by fraternal societies such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, burial grounds today are being deeded to local governments whose agencies commonly parks and recreation departments are looked to for stable long-term stewardship of the community's "pioneer" cemeteries. In such cases, when it comes time to complete the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, "public-local" or both "public-local" and "private," whichever is appropriate, should be checked.

Completing the National Register Registration Form

Nominations are processed according to the regulations set forth in 36 CFR 60, and are submitted to the National Park Service by the appropriate State or Federal Historic Preservation Officer. The following guidance supplements the instructions found in National Register Bulletin: How to Complete the National Register Registration Form.


A burial place may be classified as a "site," "district," "building," "structure," or "object." A single or compound burial of limited scope, such as trailside graves or small family plots, would be classified appropriately as a "site." Also, when a cemetery is nominated as a significant or "contributing" feature within a larger historic district, such as a village or company town, it is counted as a "site."

A complex burial site, such as a cemetery encompassing a multitude of burials, developed landscape features, and buildings, is a "district." Its component parts are enumerated and described, and those which contribute to the significance of the nominated area are distinguished from nonhistoric features which are unrelated to the period of significance. Individual monumental tombs may be classified as "structures," and gravemarkers having artistic merit or cultural significance may be counted as significant "objects." The overall landscape design including roadways, ponds, and plantings may be counted as a "site" within the district if the design is a significant feature.

Because the term "burial place" is broadly interpreted in this guidance to encompass individual buildings, such as crematory and mausoleum facilities, the category of "building" would be an appropriate classification when such buildings are nominated individually or when counting the number of contributing features in a cemetery district. Also, since a property consisting of two or more resource types should be classified under the major resource, if there is one, a property consisting of, for example, a significant church and an associated graveyard would be nominated as a "building."

Contributing Features

The number and combination of features counted as contributing to the significance of the property will vary according to property type and will depend on the criteria under which the burial place is proposed for nomination. It is not expected that individual gravesites or markers in a cemetery would be counted as separately contributing or noncontributing features in most cases. However, buildings, structures, and objects of substantial size and scale, and those specifically discussed in the nomination text for their importance in understanding the burial place including gravemarkers, should be counted. Plantings and other natural features should not be counted separately, but are included as part of a counted site.

Masonic Cemetery
A principal contributing feature of the Masonic Cemetery in Eugene, Lane County, Oregon, is the Hope Abbey Mausoleum, which meets Criterion C as the State's only truly monumental example of the Egyptian style. (Richard Roblyer, 1980)

In a cemetery district, individual gravemarkers would be counted as separately contributing features in those cases where gravemarkers have been comprehensively inventoried and evaluated and those of outstanding rank can be identified. When a cemetery is significant primarily because of the examples it contains of the distinctive work of regional stone carvers and other craftsmen, the important markers should be enumerated by an inventory and each one counted as a separately contributing feature. Others may be counted collectively as a contributing object. Taking the example of a national cemetery, markers by regulation usually do not vary; the amassed number of, say, stone crosses of uniform size spreading across the landscape is one of the distinguishing characteristics of a national cemetery. The gravemarkers in such a case may be counted in the aggregate as a single undifferentiated object contributing to the character of the nominated area.


The funerary functions of all contributing resources of the burial place, must be identified, and both historic and current functions classified on the form using the instructions provided in How to Complete the National Register Registration Form.

Description and Analysis of Features and Significance

The purpose of the narrative portions of the National Register form is twofold: 1) to describe and analyze the characteristic features of the burial place, and 2) to present a coherent argument that explains why the property meets the Criteria for Evaluation, including the Criteria Considerations for graves, cemeteries, and other kinds of properties marked for special conditions.


To prepare the descriptive narrative, the researcher needs to determine the characteristic features the burial place must have to be a good representative of its period, style or design, and method of construction or fabrication. Through systematic description, the researcher will show that the property possesses those characteristics. The features that date from the period of significance should be identified and described in Section 7 of the registration form, along with a discussion of any changes that might affect historic integrity. The completed description will provide an accurate image of the current appearance and condition of the cemetery, within which both significant historic features and nonhistoric changes and additions can be ascertained easily. It is especially important in cases where individual features within a cemetery are not inventoried and described that the description, in conjunction with maps and photographs, provide clear information on the general topography and the distribution of developed features that give the cemetery its historic character.

Consider the original cemetery in a community settled in the period of westward expansion, 1840-1890. The researcher may expect to find that it was established by a fraternal organization, platted around the nucleus of an earlier burial plot, and situated on high ground affording good drainage above the flood plain or on marginal land unsuitable for cultivation. Moreover, the gravemarkers, whether grand or modest, would reflect the vertical density and the variegation and embellishment of material characteristic of Victorian design. A community cemetery of this era that lacked well defined plots and an array of monuments ornamented in high relief likely would not be a good representative of the type; therefore, it likely would not be individually eligible for the National Register under Criterion C. This same cemetery, however, could be a contributing site in a historic district, or it might possess significant associations with the community's historic development that would make it individually eligible under Criterion A. For example, the cemetery might be the only remaining evidence of an extremely important trading, communication, and outfitting settlement along a westward migration route. In this case, the researcher would have to reconsider what physical characteristics were important in conveying the cemetery's important historic associations.


The first step in preparing the statement of significance is to identify the National Register criteria, considerations, and "areas of significance" in which the property should be evaluated. A cemetery could be evaluated in the areas of social history, ethnic heritage, art, architecture, landscape architecture, community planning, archeology, and others areas. In order to understand the property within an appropriate historic context, the researcher will have consulted reference works for information on the events, trends, and technologies which influenced development of resource types included in the area proposed for nomination. Based on information gathered in the statewide historic preservation planning process, the State historic preservation office may be able to provide data for a comparative analysis so the researcher can determine the appropriate level of significance whether the property proposed for nomination is distinctive locally or in the State or nation. Guidebooks, conference proceedings, exhibits, and exhibit catalogs also may help the researcher place the nominated property into a larger perspective.

Periods of significance also must be specified. The period of significance cannot predate the extant features that compose the burial place. For example, the period of significance for the grave of a significant person would not include that individual's lifetime, but would be the year of burial. There may be several distinct periods of significance if the burial place remained active over a long span of time. If this is the case, all periods of significance should be noted. Ordinarily, the period of significance would not extend to the most recent period of 50 years unless specially justified under Criteria Consideration G on the basis of exceptional artistic values, historical associations, or potential to yield information.

It is desirable to keep the statement of significance as concise as possible while at the same time covering adequately the property's development and use during the period of significance. Those who shaped the burial place and its setting should be identified by name, if such information is available, or by cultural affiliation, if the property is a traditional cultural site or prehistoric burial place. It is important to focus on those aspects of the property's development and use which illustrate the property's significance under National Register Criteria A, B, C, or D.

Certain burial places may have potential for designation as a National Historic Landmark. If the property appears to have national significance and has been evaluated in a national context, the supportive argument should be presented in the nomination. Designation as a National Historic Landmark may be dependent upon the National Park Service evaluating the property in the course of a theme study. A well-documented National Register nomination for a burial place of potential National Historic Landmark quality will facilitate the property's review by National Park Service professionals.

Boundary Description and Justification

Determining and justifying the boundaries of a burial place are important steps in completing the registration form. Boundaries should be drawn to encompass, but not to exceed, the full extent of resources which contribute to the significance of the property. External vistas from a suburban landscaped cemetery or a vernacular cemetery spectacularly sited in the countryside may be important to the overall feeling of the place. Nevertheless, boundaries should not be drawn to include scenic buffer areas or other acreage not directly related to the property's historical development. Encompassing a broad vista in the bounds of a nominated area normally is impractical. The bounds of burial sites should be based on the extent of the features associated with the burials. In some cases, site limits for archeological sites may be determined by remote sensing techniques or surface examination combined with controlled sub-surface testing.

Boundary definition is simplified when the current legal property description of a graveyard or cemetery is the same as the property's historic boundaries. However, if portions of the burial place under investigation have been irreversibly altered or eroded, it may be necessary to deviate from the current legal description in drawing the boundary in order to exclude areas which are plainly lacking in integrity and no longer contribute to the significance of the property. Similarly, large tracts of fallow acreage known as "reserve ground" within the bounds of a cemetery plat should not be included in the nominated area unless they contain development such as road systems or service buildings relating to the historic period. In any case, the boundary must be justified in a short narrative statement which explains why the boundaries were selected.

The delineation of boundaries may be documented in various ways. If appropriate, the current legal property description may be used. Where historic and current boundaries differ, the documentation may describe the area to be included from point to point, such as "from the northeast intersection of Rte. 5 and Cemetery Drive, north approximately 200 feet, . . . , then west fifty feet to the point of beginning." Although a fence may be located along the boundary, it should not be cited as defining the boundary because it may not be permanent. Features that are permanent, such as contour lines may be used to define boundaries when they constitute appropriate edges. Site plans, also called "sketch maps," may be used to indicate boundaries, if the map includes a scale indicator. For some large areas without obvious features to cite as edges, such as a rural site or a large cemetery, UTM points may define the boundaries, if the lines connecting the cited UTM points constitute the actual boundary lines of the area nominated.

Under the authorization of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, the National Park Service will restrict information on the location or character of a historic resource if revealing this information would expose the property to vandalism, destruction, or other harm. The information must be included on the National Register Registration Form, but checking the "Not for Publication" box on the form ensures that sensitive information will not be reproduced or distributed.

Maps and Photographs

Laurel Grove-North Cemetery
Photographs should capture the essence of a cemetery's character. The Laurel Grove-North Cemetery in Savannah, Chatham County, Georgia, is significant, in part, for its large number of Victorian statues and monuments. (James R. Lockhart, 1982)

Each registration form must be accompanied by a United States Geological Survey (USGS) map with marked Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) reference points for the purposes of locating the property geographically and illustrating its position in relation to prominent topographic features. In addition, for complex burial sites and cemetery districts, the nomination should include at least one site plan (sketch map). The site plan should locate the bounds of the property; give contour intervals, if relevant; and show the placement of major features, including nonconforming, nonhistoric development. Each feature identified as contributing or noncontributing in the form should be numbered on the site plan to correspond to a numbered inventory in the narrative discussion. Although, as stated above, it is not necessary to count and describe every gravemarker and other feature, all those specifically identified and counted must be shown on the map accompanying the nomination, either individually or collectively by area.

Copies of historic plats and building plans, if they are available, are helpful in documenting the original design intent and the integrity of some burial place property types.

A number of unmounted black and white photographs of high quality must accompany each nomination. There is no requisite number of photographs to be submitted. Requirements are that there should be as many photographs as necessary to depict the property clearly. Representative views of all characteristic features, as well as altered features and development outside the period of significance, should be included. Each photograph must identify the photographer, date, subject, and direction of the view. Prints of historic photographs are recommended as a means of documenting the integrity of the property. Photographs should be keyed to the inventory of contributing features in the narrative discussion, where appropriate. Numbered directional arrows may be placed on the site plan to indicate the direction of views shown in the photographs.


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