Removing Gravestones from Graveyards: The Ethical Considerations

 

Some of the most interesting old gravestones in New England can be found in some of the most unlikely places: church basements, historical societies, monasteries, museums and, in some cases, even in private homes. With few exceptions, the caretakers of these stones have told me they had been removed for preservation reasons. I found this somewhat unsettling. And so I began to do some research on both ethics and the law. Iíve relied heavily on Lynette Strangstadís book on graveyard preservation, but would also like to thank the archivists and curators who offered their professional opinions, Madelyn Williamson who found time to answer my questions, and, as always, the Association for Gravestone Studies for their gracious help and invaluable research facilities.

 

It should be noted that many states have laws against removing stones from graveyards. In New Hampshire, House Bill 456FN makes this type of action a Class B felony. One of the many people involved in the authorship of this law, Madelyn Williamson, told me quite frankly ďItís punishable by law because itís vandalism and itís theft.Ē But the sheer number of gravestones now housed indoors tells me that this law is a difficult one to enforce. Furthermore, there may be good reason to remove stones from a burial site. The Museum of Fines Arts in Boston, which is an extremely reputable institution, has a sizeable collection of old gravestones. And, in fact, the oldest known gravestone in New England is housed with the Rhode Island Historical Society. Iíve seen these stones. I donít like seeing them in an indoor setting. But, my concern, as with all of the members of NHOGA is what is the best way to preserve the old stones that grace our New England graveyards. Is there really a point at which it is in our best interest to remove the stone from its original surroundings? When is this point reached? ďWhat are the criteria? Who makes the decision? What should be done with the stones and do they really belong indoors? Letís look at the ethics behind the law.

 

I tend to feel that gravestones, quite simply, belong in graveyards. Once removed from their original location, they lose not only their historical context but also their function as grave markers. This is an important thing to keep in mind. Gravestones are many things: memorials, documents, artwork and artifacts. But, above all, they are markers that denote sacred ground. Another important consideration is the fact that gravestones were placed in their original locations by the families of the deceased. Does anyone, for any reason, have a right to make decisions about these memorials on behalf of the family members who erected them? Many of the historians and preservationists Iíve spoken to believe strongly that we do not have this rightóeven if those family members have passed away.

 

In addition, thereís something special about an old graveyard. One of my colleagues wrote the following: ďOne of the most moving experiences Iíve ever had was in the old town cemetery in Amherst, New Hampshire standing by the grave of Hannah French and her three daughters, born a year apart and all dying within days of birth. Hannahís own death occurred a few days after the almost simultaneous birth and death of her last little girl. The graves are in sight of her house which stills stands on the common. There is an entire Thornton Wilder play in that few square feet of space.Ē

 

Most of our NHOGA members can probably identify with this type of experience. One which would be entirely different if these same stones were viewed within the sterile atmosphere of a museum. Or entirely lost if these beautiful artifacts were packed carefully away in the local historical society in order to preserve them. Yet, itís heartbreaking to see beautiful old gravestone stones succumbing to acid rain, age vandalism. So whatís the answer?

 

Lets first address the question of who has the right to remove the stone. Often times, churches, local community members or even cemetery caretakers feel a right and a responsibility to remove gravestones for safekeeping. Especially if no descendants can be found and the stone is classified as ďabandoned.Ē But it should be noted that even churches and descendants cannot act independently of legal and ethical restrictions regarding the removal of stones.Ē[i] Our old graveyards are ďan important part of our individual and communal heritage, which by definition, belongs to us all and should be preserved for us all.Ē[ii] As safe as the stone may be in the keeping of a local museum it may not be readily available to a person wishing to see it. Think what this might mean to a scholar or researcher who must visit both the graveyard and the museum in order to see both the stone and its original setting.[iii]Or a family member searching for a lost relative. Oftentimes the gravestone is the only evidence of a personís existence.

 

I also question the actual safety of stones that have been brought indoors. Many museums, historical institutions, churches etc. have shortages of time, staff and money. ďStorage often becomes haphazard over the years and results in stones lying nearly forgotten and unidentifiable in basement corners while dampness, fungi and careless handing complete the deterioration process.Ē [iv]

 

Removing a stone from its original location does several detrimental things. It relegates the stone from its intended purpose as a burial marker, to a simple memorial. It removes it from its historical context. In some cases, it prevents access to the stone. Finally, removing one stone, even under the most necessary and appropriate circumstances can have the unfortunate effect of encouraging well meaning individuals to remove other stones under less appropriate circumstances.[v]

 

Thus, stones should only be moved indoors under extreme circumstances.

 

So, under what criteria should stones be removed?Iíve tried to distill all of the material Iíve read into a few simple rules:

 

1. Stones should only be removed from graveyards by community based groups and local officials acting within the confines of local and state law and, if possible, with the knowledge of the descendants of the deceased.

 
2.††† Stones should only be removed under extreme circumstances. It is preferable to repair a stone than to remove it in order to prevent additional damage. Itís also much easier to get support for conservation than removal. Extreme circumstances under which a stone might be removed might include ďan approaching bulldozer, a river whose bed is moving into the graveyard, a dramatic increase in pollution causing rapid deterioration of the stone, or increasingvandalism in an area ill equipped to deal with the problem.Ē[vi]

3. Stones should only be removed if they can be placed with a well-established institution willing to accept the responsibility of both caring for and providing access to the stone.

4. Stones which are removed must first be well documented regarding their original location and condition. A plaque or replica must be placed at the original gravesite, not only to mark the grave, but to tell scholars and descendants where the original stone is being housed. If a plaque is used, it should contain as much information about the original stone as is known. If a replica is used, it should clearly be defined as such.


The removal of gravestones to indoor locations is an act which should be carefully thought through, painstaking planned and used only under extreme circumstances. In most cases there are better ways to preserve these old stones and these should be fully explored. We may also have to accept the fact that gravestones cannot be preserved forever. Exposure to the elements and the inevitable passage of time may destine these beautiful monuments, like ourselves, to an eventual, natural death.



[i]A Graveyard Preservation Primer by Lynette Strangstad

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

[iv] ibid

[v] ibid

[vi] ibid