Discovery of Forgotten Burials and Cemeteries

What if you uncover or see remains that you think are human?
First, leave them in place if at all possible. If you think the remains are recent in origin, perhaps due to accident or criminal action, notify the police (911) immediately. If not, call the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs at 302-736-7400.

On occasion, historical human remains (that is, remains that were interred a long time ago) are accidentally discovered in Delaware. These discoveries are often made during construction and other earth-moving activities. In such cases, state law protects the historical remains from further damage, first by requiring that the actions that uncovered the remains stop immediately, and then that the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs and the state Medical Examiner's Office be notified.

Within 24 hours of notification, a Division archaeologist will visit the discovery site to determine if the remains are human and to ascertain the approximate time period in which the remains were interred. Any time that remains are determined to be of human origin, the Division is required to notify the state Medical Examiner's Office of the discovery. The Medical Examiner's Office then determines whether the case is, or is not, under its jurisdiction.

The preferred approach for managing historical human remains that have been discovered is to leave them in situ—that is, to keep them where they have been found—until a treatment and disposition plan can be developed. In the event that historical remains need to be removed for safekeeping, they will be transported to the Division's curation facility.

The Division holds any recovered remains for appropriate study and storage until they can be respectfully re-interred. The project, developer, or agency that inadvertently disturbed the remains generally pays for historical research and an archaeological survey of the area, to determine the extent of possible other burials or remains that could be damaged by the project, and to determine the approximate date and origin of the remains.

If the remains are determined to be from a historical period cemetery or burial, the Division advertises for next-of-kin, based on the date of the burials and the ownership history of the property. If the remains are determined to be Native American, a committee defined by law convenes to develop a treatment and disposition plan.

In both cases, the Division writes the plan for the treatment and ultimate disposition of the remains in consultation with the next-of-kin (if any come forward) or the committee, the land owner, and the project developer or other representative. Once agreement is reached, the plan is put into action.

The preferred option for reburial is always in the original location. If this is possible, a preservation covenant recorded with the deed is usually placed on the area to prevent any disturbance of the remains in the future. If removal and re-interment in another location is the decision, any associated archaeological, acreage, reburial, and marking costs are borne by the project, developer, or agency requiring the removal. Next-of-kin have the option of claiming their kin and paying for re-interment in a cemetery and plot of their choice.

Information regarding the Delaware historical Unmarked Human Remains Law may be found at http://delcode.delaware.gov/title7/c054/index.shtml.