Is it illegal to remove articles from a cemetery?

Rules and regulations for burial grounds

Unfortunately, vandalism, desecration, destruction, and theft of gravestone objects are a problem in many cemeteries. Although the county sheriff or local police have the responsibility to enforce local rules and regulations, reporting any illegal activity is the responsibility of all citizens. Recently on our blog a user asked, “Is it illegal to remove articles from a cemetery?”

Rules for protecting burial grounds

Each state has identified their own state laws and court decisions regarding the proper use of cemeteries. For example, state laws for the state of Texas can be found in Chapters 711–715 of the Texas Health and Safety Code; Title 13, Part 2, Chapter 22 of the Texas Administrative Code; and sections of the Penal Code.

If you have questions about your state’s laws it is important to review your own state’s penal codes or discuss your questions with local authorities.

What is a cemetery?

Cemeteries are defined as “a place that is used or intended to be used for interment, containing one or more graves.” If a person or business wishes to move remains or to make improvements which might disturb a cemetery, even if it appears to be abandoned, they must follow specific requirements as outlined by their states laws. In some cases, they may have to go to court to ask for a court order to remove the remains.

States may also require individuals who discover cemeteries or burial plots to notify the county clerk of the county where the cemetery is located.

So to answer the question outlined above. No, it would not be legal for an individual who locates a cemetery to move any remains or any articles from the cemetery without notifying the state and getting proper permission to have the remains moved to a new location.

This rule generally applies even to remains that may seem to have been abandoned. For example, in the state of Texas courts have decided, “The fact that the remains of the dead buried in a cemetery have not been removed and that tombstones mark the places of burial is sufficient to show that the cemetery has not been abandoned.”.(Michels v. Crouch, 122 S.W.2d 211 (Tex. Civ. App.–Eastland 1938, no writ). In Markgraf v. Salem Cemetery Assn., 540 S.W2d 524).

What is desecration and is it illegal?

It is also illegal to intentionally or knowingly disturb a human corpse, including vandalizing or damaging the space of the corpse which is interred. It is also illegal for an individual to illegally remove a headstone from the cemetery or to desecrate the burial site with graffiti. In most states this would be considered a criminal misdemeanor offense and the offender could be fined.

Individuals who remove any property from the grave or corpse may also be charged with a felony under many state’s penal code.

What should I do if I see vandalism at a cemetery?

Citizens of the United States have a responsibility to notify law enforcement and the County Historical Commission (CHC) immediately if they see any disturbance at a cemetery, including vandalism, looting, or illegal construction equipment.

Criminal charges may or may not be filed. Even if criminal charges are not filed, however, the families of those whose bodies are desecrated may have the right to file civil cases to recover damages or loss.

Bottom line:

Vandalism and looting in cemeteries is illegal but not uncommon. In fact, it’s not unusual for valuable articles such as sculptures, urns, finials, or benches to be stolen from gravesites. Looters also frequently take valuable objects such as jewelry, firearms, buttons, and buckles. If you see any type of illegal activity report it immediately.

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