Skip to main content

Preserving Illinois Burial Grounds and Cemeteries

Preserving Illinois Burial Grounds and Cemeteries Burial grounds and Cemeteries

The term cemetery is used throughout this website to denote both burial grounds and cemeteries. Burial grounds and cemeteries are terms that are used interchangeably to describe the places we bury our dead. While this broad use of the term is mostly accurate, the two words actually have different meanings. Burial grounds are those places where people bury their dead. In Illinois Native American burial grounds were made in natural rock shelters, in artificial mounds, and within or near village areas. Historic settlers buried their dead in areas near their homes and later in churchyard and small community burial grounds. The word cemetery derives from the Greek word koimterin which means “dormitory” or “place of rest” and from the Latin word cormeterium meaning “sleeping place.” Cemeteries as we know them today developed from the concept of a rural cemetery plan. The Rural Cemetery Movement in the U.S. began in 1831 at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. Cemeteries were moved away from community living spaces to a more rural area. They became park-like settings with roads, trees, and sculptures. They were still places to memorialize the dead but cemetery planners wanted the living to have a more pleasant experience when visiting their loved ones. Therefore, all cemeteries are burial grounds but not all burial grounds are cemeteries. It is these dedicated sacred spaces that we seek to protect and preserve for future generations.

The Human Remains Protection Act (20 ILCS 3440) and its implementing rules (17 IAC 4170) were created to ensure protection from disturbance and preservation of all unregistered graves, grave markers (including burial mounds), and grave artifacts that are over 100 years old. It is the intent of this Act that all human graves and human skeletal remains be accorded equal treatment and respect for human dignity without reference to ethnic origins, cultural background, or religious affiliation. These regulations apply to all prehistoric and historic American Indian, historic Illinoisan, pioneer, Civil War, and other human skeletal remains found in unregistered graves, associated grave artifacts, and grave markers upon or within any public or private land in the State.

The Illinois Historic Preservation  administers the Act and administrative codes. Preservation in place is the preferred option for the protection and preservation of unregistered graves, associated grave artifacts, and grave markers.

Per the Act, an unregistered grave is defined as any grave or location where a human body has been buried or deposited. In addition, the grave is more than 100 years old and is not in a cemetery registered with the Illinois Office of the State Comptroller under the Cemetery Care Act (760 ILCS 100) or under the authority of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation pursuant to the Cemetery Oversight Act (225 ILCS 411.)

Reasons to preserve cemeteries
It is important to clearly identify why you want to preserve a cemetery. To ensure the success of your cemetery preservation project, you need to establish short- and long-term goals. Short-term goals, such as cleaning markers of your family members, will give you small tasks to complete and you will have an immediate sense of accomplishment. Long-term goals can provide for future care of the cemetery. Many well-meaning individuals or groups want to restore a cemetery because it is the right thing to do and the project would contribute to the preservation of local history. However, people may meet for only a short period of time and never complete the project. Sometimes the project is completed and the cemetery looks great but the long-term maintenance of the cemetery is not planned. The cemetery will eventually fall into disrepair once again. Therefore, a successful cemetery preservation project must have plans for the immediate needs of the cemetery, but more importantly, there must be provisions for its permanent future care.