Finding Abandoned Cemeteries

By Carole Lynn,
October 1, 2012

There are an unknown number of abandoned cemeteries worldwide. Many abandoned cemeteries are the remnants of pioneers who moved on. Some are former churchyards, or the land of old family farms. Many counties have run out of funds to maintain the cemeteries. Today thousands of abandoned cemeteries remain undiscovered. If you wish to discover one you may not have to look far!

Old burial grounds are links to family we have never known. They can tell us a great deal about our human history. Sadly they are being lost to time. You will always remember the first abandoned cemetery you come across, it will bring tears to your eyes. You will feel helpless to do anything about this loss of heritage. Or can you do something?

There are some community people and groups that want to do the “right thing” and begin to restore a cemetery. People band together for a short time and clean up an old cemetery. Then they fail to return and maintain it. You must make provisions to keep the cemetery maintained forever. This work is never completed. We must train the next generation to take over the care of our cemeteries, otherwise Mother Nature will just reclaim the grounds again.

In some states, the township trustees provide monies for Pioneer Cemeteries. Some townships provide enough money for good care, but the majority of them don't. They may only provide mowing once or twice a year with a brush cutter. Fallen trees, head high weeds and growth, poison ivy and broken stones have nearly destroyed many of these cemeteries. Other burial grounds are now on private property and have been abandoned and are being lost to the elements.

If you are unsure where to begin, start with old printed maps that you may find at your local museums, library, Historical Society, Genealogical Society, or the local historian. Sometimes local residents know about an old cemetery by having come across it while exploring the area. Funeral homes and mortuaries can be great allies to help you locate old cemeteries. Area churches may have cemetery records from old locations of the church that had a cemetery on the old property. Many churches relocate over the years and have left cemeteries behind. Topographic maps or locality maps may show cemeteries, roads, houses, and elevation features. Cemeteries were often erected on high ground. Contour lines on a topographical map may show you where a road may have been. You can use the USGS map at to view this kind of map or Acme Map at Many cemeteries are shown by “CEM” on these maps. Once a cemetery is marked on the map they
are never removed, even when it is no longer obvious. Clicking on the cemetery to establish a fixed location, a quick glance to the bottom of the screen gives the exact latitude and longitude of its location. The USGS Geographic Names Information System is a great place to get a list of cemetery in your county.

You might find many neglected cemeteries right in your own county. Some may be easily accessible while others may be far from any road. For every cemetery someone owns the land. It could be a person, family, a non-for-profit agency, a business, or the government. Before searching on any land you must find out who the owner is and get permission to be on the property. You can go to your local county clerks office. They will help you locate the parcel on the county tax maps and determine the owner and their address. Then contact the landowner and explain that you believe there is a cemetery on his land that you would like to visit and give your reason why. Don’t assume that they even know the cemetery exists. They may or may not wish for you to be on the property. You have to respect the wishes of the landowner. Even if you have reason to believe you may have family laid to rest on his property don’t feel like he must let you on the property. It’s up to you to talk him into it. It’s highly suggested that you familiarize yourself with your state’s laws concerning cemetery access.

You can use census records to pinpoint any ancestor’s land on a map and county records and deeds search of the land may show that there was a family cemetery on the property. Unless the deed of sale for the property specifies certain conditions of the sale, then most rights go to the new property owner. You may wish to determine whether or not your ancestors placed a reservation of rights on the cemetery property. This means that someone reserved the right to access and maintain the parcel as a cemetery. This information should be on every deed and deed transfer document for the property. Make certain that you search as far back as possible. Some states do require that landowners allow access to cemeteries on private property for the purpose of visitation by descendants, and for genealogical research. You must give reasonable notice and abide by any restrictions the landowner may place upon frequency, hours, and duration of access. However these laws are weak and rarely enforced.

When you find a cemetery, be sure to pinpoint your exact location by using a GPS device, so that you can record it’s location for others to find. The important thing is to make a note of everything that you see. Take photos and make your visit count, in case you never come back. We all would like to think, one hundred years after our deaths, that our graves and our history would be better remembered and respected.

Things to look for when searching the land for a cemetery are a stand of trees that looks out of place in the middle of a field. You may find a row of fir trees around the perimeter or at the entrance of a cemetery. You might see sunflowers or other native plants grown in one area. Fencing was often used and it may still be in place. Remember that tombstones or markers left unattended in the woods may have crumbled and deteriorated from years of neglect, so they may not be any sign of them or they may have been removed on purpose hundred’s of years ago.

The best time to go on the property to search is winter because the weeds and brush will be down which will help you to see danger and find headstones. Be sure to dress well with long pants, long sleeved shirt and good shoes. You may want to wear gloves and maybe take a tool to cut back weeds. Most importantly, don’t forget the camera! After all, finding abandoned cemeteries is all about preserving history....