Cemeteries are essential elements of societies’ collective history, providing fascinating insight into past burial customs, religious beliefs, cultural and ethnic influences, community origins and development, and landscape design principles. Although virtually every remnant from the beginnings of a town or city may be lost, cemeteries often remain as some of the last tangible links to the past.
In Delaware, many prominent historical cemeteries such as Dover’s John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Cemetery and Wilmington’s Riverview Cemetery (maintained respectively by the Dover Air Force Base and the Friends of Historic Riverview Cemetery) have been preserved due to the efforts of governmental agencies, private organizations, and individuals. Other historical cemeteries, unfortunately, are vulnerable to the threats of neglect, vandalism, and development.
The following information is intended to address some of the common questions that the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs (HCA) receives from the public regarding historical cemeteries. The specific cemetery-related topics discussed include HCA’s responsibilities and services, jurisdictional questions including who is responsible for the maintenance or conservation of cemeteries, procedures following the discovery of historical unmarked human remains, research resources, eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and federal and state legislation.
Local historical societies, preservation organizations, and churches adjacent to cemeteries may also be contacted. If an historical cemetery is being vandalized or destroyed, please contact local law enforcement officials immediately.
Under penalty of law, the Delaware Unmarked Human Remains Act establishes procedures to be followed when historical unmarked human remains are discovered on non-federally owned land within the state. The most important procedure is to refrain from any further disturbance of the remains. Human remains should be left in the place that they were found, followed by immediate notification of the appropriate jurisdictional authority.
If the remains appear recent in origin, contact the police. If not, contact HCA which will designate an archaeologist from the Delaware State Historic Preservation Office (DE SHPO) who 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. For additional information, please review the Unmarked Human Remains: Discovery of Forgotten Burials and Cemeteries section of HCA’s website. If Native American (American Indian) remains are discovered on federal land, the appropriate federal agency bears responsibility and is required to follow procedures set forth in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
There are many resources available for those who wish to research historic cemeteries. The DE SHPO’s Research Center (access is by appointment only), located at 21 The Green in Dover, DE 19801, (302) 736-7400, maintains a central archive of useful information, including (but not limited to):
HCA has also compiled a list of resources related to historic cemeteries that is available for download here. The list provides relevant publications, national organizations, and contact information for state programs across the country. An extensive bibliography is also available in Cemeteries and Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture, edited by Richard E. Meyer; and Chapter VII of the National Register Bulletin no. 41 entitled Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Cemeteries and Burial Places. In particular, a highly recommended resource for novices and professionals alike is Lynette Strangstad’s Preservation of Historic Burial Grounds published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
For additional assistance and resources, contact local libraries; historical societies; the Delaware Genealogical Society, which is actively involved in surveying cemeteries; and Delaware Public Archives.
Delaware Public Archives
121 Duke of York Street
Dover, DE 19901
A)Be associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of American history
B)Be associated with the lives of persons significant in the nation’s past
C)Embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or represent the work of a master, or possess high artistic values, or represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction
D)Have yielded or may be likely to yield information important in history or prehistory
Cemeteries and burial grounds are not ordinarily considered eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places unless they are contributing elements of eligible properties or meet special conditions which are referred to as Criteria Considerations. For additional information, please review the Criteria Considerations listed in the National Register Bulletin no. 41 entitled Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Cemeteries and Burial Places.
HCA will assist individuals or organizations preparing National Register nominations in a variety of ways, including:
- Calculating Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) coordinates
- Printing digital photographs to the National Park Service’s specifications
- Reviewing draft nominations and providing constructive feedback
- Scheduling nomination reviews with the State Review Board for Historic Preservation
- Forwarding approved nominations to the National Park Service
- Reporting National Park Service decisions
- Coordinating administrative correspondence, including owner and government notifications
- Preparing certificate(s) of listing
For additional information, please review the National Register of Historic Places section of HCA’s website.
Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s (ACHP) Policy Statement Regarding the Treatment of Burial Sites, Human Remains, and Funerary Objects
This policy is designed to guide federal agencies in making decisions about the identification and treatment of burial sites, human remains, and funerary objects encountered in the Section 106 process of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, in those instances where federal or state law does not prescribe a course of action.
NAGPRA provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items, human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony that are discovered on federal land to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Native America tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.
The Unmarked Human Remains Act outlines the process involving human burials and skeletal remains that are discovered on non-federally owned land in Delaware. If the remains are Native American, a committee determines the disposition of the remains. If the historical unmarked remains are non-Native American, the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs is required to attempt to locate the deceased’s next of kin via public notices.
Trading in human remains or associated funerary objects is a Class B Misdemeanor. “Associated funerary objects” includes any structure in or directly associated with a burial site as well as items of human manufacture or use that are intentionally placed with human remains at the time of internment or later as part of a death rite or ceremony.