Cemetery in North Carolina

Concern for Cemeteries

Note: If you want to report graves being disturbed please contact your local sheriff's office. Your sheriff's contact information can be found at the NC Sheriffs' Association.

There has been a growing concern about the plight of the forgotten cemeteries that dot North Carolina's landscape. This concern resulted in the formation in 1978 of a legislative study committee (the Abandoned Cemeteries Study Committee) to look into the conditions of abandoned graveyards and to offer recommendations for their protection and preservation.

To assess these conditions, the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources coordinated an effort using private individuals and organizations to locate and record cemetery data at the county level. The findings of that assessment were reported to the General Assembly in 1981. As a result, the information-gathering program has continued as the North Carolina Cemetery Survey, and the state's criminal and civil statutes pertaining to burial sites have been strengthened. They protect abandoned public graveyards from the threats posed by urban development, agricultural activity, lumbering operations, vandalism, and neglect.

The North Carolina Cemetery Survey

The North Carolina Cemetery Survey is a program for recording vital statistics from the state's cemeteries. It operates at the county level and is coordinated through the State Archives at the state level. The program's objectives are:

1. Identifying, mapping, and describing existing cemeteries in North Carolina regardless of size, type, or physical characteristics. Since vital statistics were not kept officially until 1913, the emphasis of the survey is on those graveyards with burials before that date.

2. Permanently preserving historical, genealogical, sociological, demographic, and cultural data contained in abandoned or otherwise not-cared for cemeteries, including epitaphs and photographs whenever possible.

3. Providing more recent and comprehensive survey data than that available in earlier cemetery surveys, such as the one conducted by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s and 1940s.

General Statutes Protecting Cemeteries

G.S. 14-148 and G.S. 14-149 outline the penalties for defacing and desecrating gravesites and for plowing over or covering up graves: Violation is a misdemeanor and a Class I felony respectively. The fine is up to $500, and imprisonment is between sixty days and a year. Both penalties may result.

G.S. 65-111G.S. 65-112 and G.S. 65-113 outline the duties of the county commissioners: They are required to keep a list of all abandoned public cemeteries on file with the register of deeds. A copy is also to be sent to the secretary of state's office. The county commissioners are also required to take control of all abandoned public cemeteries and may appropriate whatever sums are deemed necessary for their upkeep.

G.S. 65-91 through G.S. 65-96 describe the legal means for setting up a trust fund for the upkeep of a cemetery: Money in amounts no less than $5000, may be deposited with the clerk of superior court as a perpetual trust fund for the maintenance of cemeteries. Trustees may be appointed by the clerk. 

G.S. 65-106 details the proper procedure for the removal of graves, including who may disinter, move, and reinter: The party moving the gravels) must give at least thirty days, written notice to the next of kin, if known. Notice must also be published at least once a week for four successive weeks in a newspaper published in the county in which the proposed removal is to take place. Removal expense is incurred by the mover, with some expense (not over $200) to be incurred by the next of kin. The removal is performed by a funeral director under the supervision of the county commissioners and the local health director. A certificate is then filed by the mover with the register of deeds. 

G.S. 65-101 and G.S. 65-102 discuss who may enter private property in order to investigate, visit, or maintain a private grave or an abandoned public cemetery: A descendant of the interred or any other person with a special interest in the site may do so. He or she must notify the landowner in writing of his or her intent and then may visit periodically during daylight hours only, with the landowner's approval. If such approval cannot be obtained, the descendant may petition the clerk of superior court for an order allowing him or her access. After a special proceeding providing for notice and a hearing, the clerk may issue such an order, if deemed appropriate. 

G.S. 70-29 through G.S. 70-33 give the procedure for notifying the proper authorities upon the discovery of unmarked remains: Anyone who discovers unmarked burials, or suspects that they are being disturbed, must notify the county medical examiner or the state archaeologist immediately. There is then a period of forty-eight hours to make arrangements for the protection or removal of the graves. The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources may obtain administrative inspection warrants for the purpose of gathering additional information as necessary.

Governing Bodies

The Office of Archives and History within the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources is responsible for coordinating this program. It was begun in a few selected counties and has now expanded to include nearly all 100 of them. Each county sets up its own committee with a coordinator, and work is accomplished on a grassroots, voluntary basis, because state funds are presently unavailable. A state coordinator is employed by the Archives and Records Section to serve as a liaison between the State Archives and the county committees. The duties of the coordinator are:

1. Soliciting participation in the survey (by members of historical and genealogical societies, in particular) through speaking engagements, press releases, and correspondence as necessary.

2. Instructing cemetery committees on the use of specially designed survey forms to record the desired information about cemeteries in a county.

3. Demonstrating how to plot specific cemetery locations on United States Geological Survey maps.

4. Assisting in the preparation, recording, and transferring of all accumulated information to the State Archives.

Access the Information

Data compiled in the North Carolina Cemetery Survey are available in the Search Room of the North Carolina State Archives. The Search Room is located in Room 201 of the Archives and History/State Library Building at 109 East Jones Street, Raleigh.


Those interested in submitting cemetery information should download the form (Professional or Citizen version), fill it out and email it to Melissa Timo. You can also mail the form to:

Melissa Timo
Historic Cemetery Specialist
Office of State Archaeology
4619 Mail Service Center 
Raleigh, N.C. 27699-4619