What to Expect From a Cemetery

Visiting the graveyard of an ancestor is a sad but important part of family history. Many people also find that the way a cemetery looks matters to them.

A cemetery is usually not affiliated with a church and is located away from town or city centers to allow more space for burials. Typically, fees are charged for opening the grave and ongoing care of the site.


The big clue that a cemetery isn’t just some vacant ground next to a church is in the name itself: Cemetery. That single word tells you that this is a special place where people have been buried and there are lots of rules in place. That means you’re likely going to have a harder time finding an individual grave than you would in a graveyard.

Cemeteries are designed with precise plot locations and clear boundaries, while graveyards can be less formally planned. Early on, people were buried in their local churches as space allowed, but as congregations grew and churchyards filled up, independent sites called cemeteries became more common.

Today, cemeteries offer a wide variety of burial and arrangement options for both traditional and cremated remains. They can be public or private, religious or secular, for-profit or not-for-profit. Each type has a different ownership structure and financial endowment plan. This affects how much you pay for a plot and for on-going care services.


Many cemeteries have a set of rules and regulations to ensure that the cemetery is maintained in the best possible manner. This includes removing flowers, ribbons and other items that become unsightly or wilted. It also involves making sure that the cemetery is always open to visitors and is clean.

Many modern cemeteries offer cremation burials and will have their own crematorium on-site. There may also be a funeral home that provides pre-burial services to families. These services can include a gathering in a chapel before a cremation or burial and a funeral service in the church or chapel.

If any grave, lot or plot should be encumbered by enclosure, posts, railings, copings or other similar construction that is determined by the Cemetery to be offensive, improper or injurious to the beauty of the Cemetery, the Cemetery has the right at its expense to enter upon such lot, grave or plot and remove said obstruction and re-establish the same in a manner satisfactory to the Cemetery management.


Unlike funeral homes, cemeteries are not required to prepare a written price list. Ask to see one and make sure you understand the breakdown of costs. Also note whether prices are quoted for a specific location within the cemetery or a general area. Many people are surprised to learn that a cemetery will charge for the burial of human remains. This is not a hidden cost, but it must be paid. Also note the cemetery’s policies about “perpetual care” and “permanent maintenance” funds. Generally, only interest from these funds can be used for maintenance, and the principal must remain intact.

It is typically less expensive to purchase cemetery plots or crypts in advance than to buy them at the time of need. Also, if you move, look for a contract that allows you to transfer your burial rights to another cemetery. A right of first refusal may be included in the contract as well. This will prevent family members from being left holding the bag for a previously purchased cemetery plot or crypt.


A cemetery association may receive donations, which must be invested in accordance with statutes concerning investment of trust funds. In some cases, the association must report to a town committee about its investments and expenditures.

In addition, any association may impose rules governing the use of burial plots, gravestones and monuments. It must disclose to consumers any dispute resolution procedure at the time of sale. Cemetery associations also must comply with state laws governing nonprofit corporations.

Municipalities may acquire title to “abandoned cemeteries.” Prior to doing so, they must use due diligence to identify any owners of the cemetery or its private lots or grave sites. If an owner can be found, the municipality must allow them to reassert their rights of ownership. Any municipality acquiring a cemetery must annually clear it of weeds, briars and other plants; repair any fences or walls; and keep the grounds in order and decent condition. It must also post notice of its intent to do so in a newspaper.

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