Abandoned Cemeteries

Tips on Dealing with Abandoned Cemeteries

The existence of abandoned cemeteries is a sad but true reality throughout the state of Illinois. There are hundreds of these cemeteries, most located in rural communities, with no one to care for them. Most abandoned cemeteries were once the property of Illinois families who buried loved ones on the family farm. Once those families moved from the area or passed away, the land was sold and the cemeteries were all but forgotten.

Though these cemeteries are outside the scope of our jurisdiction, the Comptroller’s Office is committed to raising awareness and suggesting ways to make improvements. Support from community volunteers and local businesses is at the heart of every restoration project.

Here are some tips on how to go about restoring an abandoned cemetery in your neighborhood:

· Get permission: First, get the permission of the landowner. Legally, an abandoned cemetery is the private property of the person whose land it is on, whether that person has any ties to the cemetery or  not. While a landowner is legally prohibited from destroying or damaging the cemetery in any way, he/she is not obligated to either maintain the cemetery or allow others to access it for the purposes of cleanup or visitation. Therefore, you must receive the landowner’s permission before attempting to restore a cemetery. If the ownership of the land is not clear, visit your county Recorder of Deeds Office to try and determine ownership. 

NOTE: A provision in the 2001 legislative reform package allows a municipality (township, city, village, etc.) to enter an abandoned cemetery for the purposes of restoration if the landowner of the property on which the cemetery lies cannot be located.

· Make a restoration plan: Some abandoned cemeteries simply require mowing and weeding. Others need tree limbs and other debris removed, as well as the burning of brush. Still, others may require the repair or resetting of damaged headstones. Before starting anything, create a plan that spells out what you would like to accomplish. It is important that your plan be realistic, taking into consideration the volunteer base and financial donations you expect to gather.

· Recruit volunteers: The heart and soul of the Project CARE initiative is the effort of our volunteers. We have success recruiting volunteers from the following categories: 

  • Boy and Girl Scouts of America
  • Students, particularly those who need community service hours to graduate from junior high or high school
  • Veterans’ organizations and their families
  • Historical and genealogical society members
  • Rotary, Jaycees, and similar community-minded organizations
  • Prison work camps – if there is a prison near your area, contact authorities to see if prisoner work camps are available to assist in your restoration project
  • Advertise  place a notice in your local paper about the upcoming cleanup project. Ask for volunteers to help in the restoration, as well as the use of tools or the donation of funds to help in the project
  • Ask for Donations – some local businesses may be willing to donate materials (gloves, rakes, weed killer, etc.) to aid in your restoration. Pay a visit or write a letter explaining your project, then follow up with the owner or manager
  • Set a Cleanup Date – Once you have established your volunteer base and gathered your materials, set a date for the first restoration session. Some small cemeteries will only need one day of work. For others, the initial cleanup date might be the first of many. Regardless, advertise your first cleanup date, even inviting reporters from the local newspapers to report on what is being done. The more you are able to spread the word, the more help will come your way

Coordinating a cleanup project takes time and effort. But restoring the final resting places of those buried in these oldest Illinois cemeteries, many of whom were veterans, community leaders, and original settlers, is a noble undertaking that creates a sense of pride for a community. 

If you have further questions on how to start an abandoned cemetery restoration project in your community, contact us.