The independent, entrepreneurial spirit that has prevailed in the United States for decades (some will say for centuries) has made the idea of independent burials an attractive one for many families that have lost a loved one. By independent, we mean, simply in a private cemetery owned and maintained by the family itself, rather than some large organization such as a church, the government or even a commercial, for-profit operation. The freedom be be free of bureaucratic policies and excessive charges is a very attractive idea for families across the country and gives rise to the desire of a growing number of families to establish their own private cemetery. Here are some guidelines that will help a family wanting to partake in this important American tradition.
Consider the Permanence of the Decision
The first piece of advice that experts typically give to a family wanting to start a new cemetery is to carefully consider that this is a permanent decision that is being made. Once a piece of property has been dedicated as a cemetery, reversing the decision – even if the cemetery is not used for its intended purpose – is a complex matter and is very likely impossible (or cost prohibitive at the very least). In many areas, it is possible to sell a family cemetery to another person or entity who intends to run the property as a cemetery, but, given that the land has very limited use, the chances of selling the land for a price that is anywhere close to what another piece of property might earn are slim. So families are well advised to make absolutely sure that they wish to devote a piece of their collective resources to this all-but-irreversible decision.
All of this is not to suggest that starting a family cemetery need be unduly risky or a bad investment. In fact, such a decision can end up being very wise from both a perspective of protecting and preserving a family’s legacy for the ages and from a perspective of investment. At today’s standard prices for a burial of a single person, the cost of land associated with a private family cemetery can often be made up in just two or three family burials. Most family cemeteries have rooms for dozens of bodies, headstones and other markers.
Consider Local Laws
The next thing to consider in starting a family cemetery is local laws that may govern, or even prohibit a cemetery on the property. Given the sacred nature of a cemetery, it would be disastrous for all involved – from family members, to those who live in the community surrounding a family cemetery, to those who must enforce the laws – to create a case in which a cemetery is threatened legally because insufficient care was taken to see that the plan for the cemetery complied with local laws.
In general, cemeteries are required to be established on property owned outright by the person or group that intends to sign the dedication paperwork required by the state or local government. (Mortgages in most cases do not necessary preclude the establishment of a family cemetery, but, since the mortgage holder has to be thoroughly involved in the decision – and usually has to approve it formally – the best scenario is usually to be certain that the property is entirely in the sole legal name of the cemetery owner. ) The cemetery must be also in a rural area well outside of a city limits. The distance away from a city varies according to by the state and the population size of the city. For example, in Texas, a cemetery must be further than 1 mile away from a city with a population of 5,000 or less, but 5 miles away from a city with a population of 200,000. Other states have similar requirements, though they all vary slightly.
Consider Visitors and Neighbors
Some states require cemetery owners to formally consult neighbors about a plan to convert a piece of property into a cemetery. This is usually done as a part of zoning laws. But, even if it is not required by law (which in rural areas it may very well not be) experts in this field of cemetery planning strongly recommend that family’s consult with surrounding land owners about their plans. The last thing that anyone one wants to create with something so important as a family cemetery is discord. One great way to build good rapport with neighbors (who after all have a vested interest in the cemetery) is to offer them free plots in the new cemetery. This manner of turning a cemetery from a family cemetery into a community cemetery is one great way to ensure good will and harmony for years amidst the project.
And, of course, potential visitors to the cemetery must be considered when planning a family grave yard. Many state laws require that a new family cemetery offer unlimited “reasonable access” to anyone in the public who wishes to visit. This is not typically been interpreted as requiring that such amenities as signs, paved roads and parking lots be offered for the public. But such rules do usually specify that land leading up to a cemetery must be made open to the public for crossing, as needed, to gain access to the grave sites.
Surveying and Preparing the Land
In most cases preparing the land that is intended to be a cemetery is a simple matter. Generally speaking, no fences are required, and, as we mention above, there is rarely a legal requirement that the area be marked with signs indicating that the land is a cemetery. (Even grave markers are not required in the vast majority of cases.) But, even though these may not be legal requirements for the opening of a new family cemetery, experts advise that families incorporate at least some of these elements into their plans regardless. It just makes practical sense, for example, to make sure that visitors to the cemetery can easily find the graves they are interested in visiting and that they be given some sign of when they may be accidentally venturing onto other private property to which they may not be welcomed.
To formally dedicate a piece of land as a cemetery, the land owner will usually have to submit a survey of the parcel of land that he or she wishes to relabel for such purposes. This is done in the offices that manage real estate records for the state and/or county in which the cemetery will be located. In most cases, it can be done without the use of professional legal or surveying services and with the assistance of the clerks who work in the real estate records agencies. But, of course, the procedures and laws vary widely according to the jurisdictions involved. Because the dedication process is usually a fairly simple process not requiring a prohibitive amount of professional fees, many families hire the help, just for the sake of convenience (along with a little piece of mind that the job was done entirely correctly).
Maintaining the Land
Generally speaking, state and local laws do not specifically address maintenance requirements for family cemeteries, but landowners are expected to comply with all other laws related to property maintenance (grass mowing, and brush clearing ordinances, for example). But, just because the government is largely silent on requirements for such things as fences, landscaping, and headstone cleaning and maintenance, does not mean that families should neglect these topics when planning their cemetery. Any good plan for establishing a new family cemetery should carefully consider just who will be responsible for maintaining the grave sites and how often. It is often the experience of landowners who establish family cemeteries on their property that they find themselves left to these duties and expenses despite early promises from others in the family to help in that regard. It is for this reason that many experts suggest that a maintenance policy be specified in writing well before the cemetery’s first grave is added, and family members all agree to the policy, in writing, before any dedication documents are filed with the government.
Another consideration is the legal liability of maintaining the land. Not following state or local minimums in regard to landscaping often carries civil penalties that can amount to thousands of dollars, and, when it comes to grave digging, an improperly buried body can result in similar penalties and, in some cases, it is even a misdemeanor charge that carries the possibility of jail time. Because of these liabilities associated with establishing a family cemetery, a wise landowner would certainly secure written promises to help with the maintenance from all family members involved the new cemetery.
As with maintenance above, state and local laws typically have no formal requirement that good records be kept for family cemeteries, but it is wise to do so just the same. Many of the documents can be filed with local government officials or with a local historical society, but many family cemeteries also name an official custodian of records who keeps track of who is buried where and when in the cemetery. Whatever the case, the records should be carefully stored in a very secure place –perhaps in a safety deposit box in a bank – and care should be taken that they are accurate. This is not only of benefit to future historians who will be appreciative of the assistance in compiling an accurate picture of a family, but it could also help keep disputes among family members whose loved ones are buried in the cemetery.