Main Content

What you should know about burial land laws

Putting a white Rose on a tomb

Death is part of life, and the church plays a significant role in the rituals and services regarding the deceased. To better manage cemeteries and similar church-owned properties, your congregation must have a thorough understanding of cemetery laws and regulations in North America.

Legal definition of cemeteries

Cemeteries are places where the bodies of the dead and cremated remains are placed to rest, and where the final rites and ceremonies of death are practiced according to the religious and cultural beliefs of the community. Columbaria are buildings with niches for urns that contain the cremated remains of the deceased.

Establishing a cemetery involves the formal process of designating land for use for burials. Tracts must be marked as burial places and distinguished from the surrounding grounds.

The law places cemeteries under two general categories, namely public and private:

    • A public cemetery is formally dedicated by a governmental body for use by a church, neighborhood, or the general community. Actual public use, and not ownership, determines whether a cemetery should be classified as public.
    • A private cemetery is designated by a private enterprise for exclusive use by a family or a smaller segment of the community. As defined by statute, a family burial ground has interments restricted to individuals who are related by blood or marriage.

Privately owned and maintained cemeteries can be considered public if a high number of burial plots are sold to the public, and if it is open for public use under certain regulations and with the consent of the property owner.

A municipal corporation can hold cemetery property in trust for public burials or as a private burial ground as a private corporation. For example, the federal government offers burial sites to military and federal personnel.

Cemetery regulations

A cemetery is subject to the laws of ordinary property with most states having established laws specifically meant to govern the use of cemetery properties. Even private interests in burial grounds are subject to the scrutiny and regulation of public authorities, which have the right to require disinterment if deemed appropriate and necessary.

    • Cemetery Care Act – To gain access to care funds, cemeteries must meet certain conditions as well as secure a license from the Auditor of Public Accounts, which requires them to provide details on their finances and other information to personnel.

Once approved, privately operated cemeteries must file an annual report on income, disbursements, securities, and investments relating to the care fund. Their books must also be available for inspection at all times.

  • National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 – The act helps preserve cemeteries eligible for, or already listed, on the National Register of Historic Places. The policy only applies to cemeteries with federal licenses, permits, and funds.
  • Rights to vaults and lots – In most jurisdictions, public cemetery lot owners only have the right of burial to these lots. They don’t own the land or acquire the fee to the soil. They only have an easement or license to use that particular land for burial.

Find ways to serve the faithful during times of grieving and great distress. Ministering the proper rites for burial in observance of cemetery regulations can help further your ministry. A.D. Advisors specializes in church-owned properties in the United States and Canada. You can reach us here. You can also message us at Info(at)ADAdvisors(dotted)org and 630.606.9000.