This guide provides brief descriptions of Pennsylvania laws in chronological order that address cemeteries and burial grounds. They show that there is a legal basis for preserving these sites and that recent laws now protect the cemetery monuments or material fragments as well. Each law below is directly linked to its complete legal texts. This compilation provides an introduction to laws relating to cemeteries and burial grounds but it is not an exhaustive resource nor intended to substitute for professional legal advice.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) often becomes involved with historic cemetery and burial ground preservation through the interplay of state and federal laws. See the section on federal laws for further explanations.
Cemeteries and Graveyards Protected Act (PDF) of April 5, 1849 (P.L. 397, No. 296)
This Act states that it is illegal to construct a street, lane, alley, or public road through a cemetery unless a future law specifically allows for it. This Act is not applicable to Philadelphia County .
Concerning Removal of Dead Bodies from Burial Grounds Act (PDF)of June 16, 1891 (P.L. 310, No. 238)
This Act states that the keepers of a given burial ground may sell the burial ground, remove remains, and place them appropriately at another burial site.
Burial Grounds Conveyance Act (PDF) of June 25, 1913 (P.L. 551, No. 354)
This Act authorizes churches, cemeteries, and burial associations, if unsuccessful in notifying the owner or caretaker of the lot, to disinter (and re-inter) remains if necessitated by growth or for sanitary reasons. Disinterment may occur only if a court agrees that at least one of the following is true:
- that the property is surrounded by improvements
- that keeping the bodies would result in a public health danger
- that the burial ground is neglected or a public nuisance
- that remains interfere with the "improvements, extension and general progressive interest of the Commonwealth or any city, borough, town or township."
This Act also states that burial grounds may be sold after remains have been removed, provided the court has decided that the church or other entity associated with the burial grounds is in compliance with the court order. The proceeds from selling the burial ground must be used to finance the following:
- expenses associated with the movement of bodies, such as purchasing or maintaining monuments and purchasing new grounds
- compensation to owners of a burial ground in which no bodies have been interred
Additionally, residue must be held in trust for lots owners who could not be found or other uses, as identified by the church, cemetery, or burial association.
Burial Grounds, Municipal Control Act (PDF) of May 10, 1923 (P.L. 198, No. 144)
This Act states that courts have the authority to designate local governments as the caretakers of neglected burial grounds. The local government must then finance the maintenance of the burial ground, and these grounds must be open to the public. Furthermore, a petition signed by at least 25 citizens residing within a five-mile radius of the municipally-owned and maintained burial ground may be used by a court as means to order the local government to rid the burial ground of weeds, overgrown brush, etc.
Supplementing County Water Supply Authority Act (PDF) of July 18, 1957 (P.L. 1006, No. 446)
This Act states that burial grounds or places of public worship may not be taken by eminent domain by a water authority unless a court determines that "the taking is necessary in storing water in connection with its water supply business" or that such an action would result in the "protection of the purity, potability or commercial value of [the authority's] water supply." This Act also indicates that, if a water supply authority is granted permission to take burial grounds, the water supply authority must finance the relocation and re-interment of bodies as well as the maintenance of headstone records and the protection of public health and safety.
Burial Grounds Title 9 (PDF): November 15, 1972 (P.L. 1063, No. 271)
This Title states that a permanent lot care fund must be established for all new cemeteries or burial grounds. This fund should be used for the purpose of "care, maintenance, and preservation" of the cemetery or burial ground. However, this provision does not apply to "any bona fide church or religious congregation or any association created by any such bona fide church or religious congregation." Additionally, these new cemeteries (not administered by a church or religious organization, etc.) must have a valid registration certificate and an affidavit of compliance.
Cemetery Companies: Interment rights, restore and maintain Act (PDF) of November 24, 1992 (P.L. 730, No. 110)
This act states that interment rights may be deemed abandoned if they were granted by a cemetery company or burial association; if they were not used for 50 years; and if the owners or their heirs cannot be located. The act also stipulates that ownership of previously deemed abandoned grounds may be regained (or similar right may be awarded) if owners present themselves within 30 years after the interment rights have been deemed abandoned.
This act also states that burial ground caretaker organizations or landowners are not obligated to keep a burial ground "safe for entry or use by others or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on the premises of a historical burial place." However, the act also notes that burial ground caretaker organizations or landowners may be found libelous "for willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on the premises of a historic burial place."
Note: See below for definition of Historic burial place.
Historic Burial Places Preservation Act (PDF) of April 29, 1994 (P.L. 141, No. 22)
This Act defines "Historic burial place" as "A tract of land that has been in existence as a burial ground for more than 100 years wherein there have been not burials for at least 50 years and wherein there will be no future burials or listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as determined by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission."
It further states that municipalities may not use eminent domain to take a historic burial ground for an alternate use. PHMC approval must be given before a burial ground is taken for "public use." If the burial ground is taken for public use, then the burial ground authority must preserve a record of what was removed. This record must be sent to the county and PHMC.
Furthermore, this Act also stipulates that the following actions are illegal: the removals of a fence, tomb, monument, gravestone, or fragment. These actions are legal only if the object(s) is being removed with consent of the owner or descendent and a court order for the purpose of "repair or replacement, reproduction or preservation and display in an accredited museum."