What Happens If You Find A Family Cemetery In Your Backyard: Advice For Homeowners In Tennessee

While people now often choose a burial in a public cemetery, private burial grounds were once quite common across the United States, especially in certain areas. In fact, state archaeologist Nick Fielder estimates that there are around 20,000 private family burial grounds in Tennessee. Nonetheless, while a private burial ground was once a precious part of a family's heritage, new property owners may feel less enthusiastic about the presence of the deceased. Find out what it means if you find a family cemetery on your land, and learn more about what you can do with these plots.

Family cemeteries in Tennessee

Under Tennessee state law, you can ask your family to bury your remains on private land. Centuries ago, this practice was popular with land owners, who enjoyed the privacy and intimacy of a family cemetery as part of their estate. Of course, these landowners rarely considered the idea that their family home would one day no longer belong to their descendants.

Unsurprisingly, over the last century, many of these family cemeteries have disappeared. In fact, Nick Fielder estimates that 100 family cemeteries disappear every year due to development. 

Finding a family cemetery

You may not immediately notice a family burial ground on your property. Any obvious signs may have long since disappeared or fallen into decay, but there are certain things you or a surveyor can spot. Clues that can lead you to an old burial ground include the following:

  • Information on old maps or property plans
  • Sunken areas of land oriented east-west
  • Lots of cemetery ivy growth, which often once marked graves
  • Tombstones or grave markers

It's also worth discussing the matter with your neighbors. Families that have lived in the area for some time may remember more established family cemeteries. Official records are less common.

Records and information

Records of family cemeteries seldom exist. In Tennessee, there is no central inventory of these burial grounds, which means nobody can check if or where a family cemetery may exist in the state. As such, most of the information that now exists about family cemeteries appears in documents that historians pull together, but these records have no legal value.

In fact, the lack of legal records means that relatives of the people buried in these cemeteries seldom have any legal leverage when it comes to these plots. Family burial grounds only have legal protection if the site is recorded within the property deed. While few property deeds for older properties show details of a burial ground, restrictions apply to the land where a burial ground appears in the document.

Burial ground protection in property deeds

Tennessee state laws protect family burial grounds that appear in property deeds. All owners (and future buyers) of the land must protect the gravesite from disturbance. In fact, you must not disturb the land within ten feet of the perimeter of the gravesite. You can't disturb land within five feet of a crypt either.

What's more, when you buy a property, you must take 'reasonable steps' to make sure the deed shows the presence of any gravesite or crypt on the land. Technically, this means that you must update the deed if your surveyor discovers a gravesite or crypt anywhere on the property.

You may decide that you want to use the land for another purpose. In this instance, you can normally transfer any human remains at your expense to another burial ground. You will have to apply to the local court for permission to do this, before which you must advertise your plans in the county newspaper. This step allows any family members living in the area to contact you to discuss your plans and/or to request alternative arrangements.

Leaving a burial ground intact

A family burial ground can add historic interest to your property, and some landowners leave these features intact. You don't have to repair or restore the site, but you do have to allow any family members to visit the cemetery, even though you now own the land. Of course, you may decide to segregate the area with a fence or other markers.

If you find a family burial ground on your land, you must either leave the area alone or apply to the court to transfer the human remains. Talk to a real estate attorney or surveyor, like those found at Krause & Gantzer, for more advice about your rights and responsibilities in this situation.