How to Start a Family Cemetery: Step-By-Step

Updated

Say you’ve decided that you want to be buried on your own property and would like your family members to have the same option. Not all people want a cemetery burial among strangers in a large memorial park. They would prefer to be buried on their own land that has been their home for decades or their lifetime. It’s understandable, as many family cemeteries are located in rural areas on farmland or on what once was farmland and have a strong connection to it.

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If you’ve ever wondered about how to start a family cemetery, here’s a step-by-step guide to tell you what they are and what to do. However, a note before digging in. With all properties, it is good to keep in mind that it will take some time to establish the creation of a family cemetery.

What’s a Family Cemetery?

According to Law Insider, a family cemetery is defined as a plot of land “that is not associated with a specific religious organization but that is the site of burial for persons related by blood, marriage, or household.” As the term states, it is usually owned and run by a member of the same family. The person that owns and runs it can also be called a cemetery authority.

If you want to start a family cemetery on the land you own, there are certain things you’ll need to do. You will want to not only consider the placement of the family cemetery on a parcel of land, but also what legal matters you will need to attend while you develop it. You’ll want to plan ahead of time because you may need to deal with things such as:

  • State and local regulations
  • Property surveys
  • Filling out applications
  • Paying fees
  • Materials for fencing
  • Understanding future maintenance costs
  • Necessary equipment for burials and grounds prep
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Steps for Starting a Cemetery

While it may seem like an easy thing to make a family cemetery on land you already own. But there’s more to it than deciding where you want it then plotting out the space.

Step 1: Make sure home burials are allowed in your states

According to Legal Beagle, the majority of states in the U.S. do allow home burials, but there are three states that do not allow cemeteries on an individual’s private land. The states of California, Indiana, and Washington do not allow home burials or cemeteries. While the other states do allow home burials, some have a caveat. Certain states have regulations in place even if they do allow home burials. 

In the following states you are only allowed to have a home burial only if a funeral director (or undertaker in the U.K.) is involved:

  • Alabama
  • Connecticut
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Nebraska
  • New Jersey
  • New York

These states “require that you hire a funeral director to handle portions of the post-death process,” according to the website Rome Monuments. Funeral directors can be great sources of information regarding state or town laws, and may have more insight into the legal process involved with creating your own family cemetery.

Step 2: Have your land surveyed and assessed

Once you find out that you are able to have a private family cemetery on your land, you may need to have your land surveyed, as some states require it.

Check with your county or city government. In addition, having a property assessor look at your land will help in terms of the actual placement. An assessor will tell you if there are underground cables, drainage issues, if your property is in a flood plain, or even if there are deed restrictions.

Step 3: Find out your state’s requirements regarding family/private cemeteries

According to Legal Beagle, it is also highly recommended that you check with your Department of State or Commerce regarding licensing, regulations, and other laws. You’ll want to have a list of questions at the ready, such as:

  • What zoning laws apply to the potential area?
  • Is a license or certificate required?
  • Are there regulations on a graveyard’s distance from a home? For example, in New York, cemeteries must be at least 1,650 feet away from a house or else they require a homeowner’s consent.

Step 4: Contact the county clerk’s office

Find out if you will need burial permits for those who will be buried in the family plot or cemetery.

You should also file a survey of the cemetery with the office so there will be a record of the cemetery’s location and records of the grave locations.

Step 5: Obtain the proper equipment to maintain your cemetery

After getting all the papers, fees, and permits, you’ll still need actual equipment to maintain the ground itself and clear away any brambles or greenery on top of the location. Purchasing the following items will help you cover your basics:

  • Lawn mower
  • Weed trimmer
  • Pruning shears
  • Chainsaw
  • Rakes
  • Edging tool
  • Shovels, spades
  • Pick
  • Tarps for covering the displaced dirt

Step 6: Decide what equipment is needed for burials and lowering caskets

Digging a grave is not an easy chore. If you are thinking of only using good, old-fashioned shovels, you’re going to need some assistance. And you’ll have to start digging right away. It could take 10 hours of actual digging time to completely open a new grave.

You may want to rent or borrow some equipment, such as a backhoe. Using mechanical equipment like a backhoe may also require that you obtain a license to operate it. There is also the matter of lowering a casket or another container in the ground. Canvas slings or ropes may work for you. Just make sure you know the proper ways to use them.

Step 7: Select a grave marker or memorial

You may go the traditional route and order a headstone from a monument dealer in person or online. There are many options for buying online, so shop around to make sure you’re purchasing from a trusted business with your best interests in mind. 

You can also go a completely different route and make your own gravestone or marker. In other cemeteries, your choice of headstone is limited to their particular guidelines. In your own cemetery, you can decide the size, content, material of the grave markers to use. If you want a simple, handmade, concrete marker featuring a mosaic by children in the family, you can have that.

Other Things to Consider With Your Cemetery

After going through all those steps, it can seem like you’re ready to bury your loved ones on your very own property. However, the funeral business goes hand-in-hand with running your own cemetery, so you’ll want to answer any questions your loved ones may have regarding services and memorials.

Home funerals or funeral home services?

After the death of a family member, your family needs to decide whether you’ll have a home funeral or if you will use a funeral home. Keep in mind that if you live in one of the ten states listed at the top of this article, you must involve a funeral director.

If you don’t live in those states and choose to take care of everything yourself, there are certain things you must do.

Paperwork

You will have to fill out and sign a death certificate (a nurse or doctor should help with this), and file it with the county clerk’s office or the registrar’s office. In the event that a contagious disease was the cause of death, that will legally need to be reported as well.

To embalm or not to embalm

Find out if the body will need to be embalmed or preserved via refrigeration. That may require the help of a morgue. If there will be a delay in burial, there may be state rules you need to follow. Often the limit is before 24 or 48 hours. Anything longer, and the body will need to be embalmed or refrigerated.

Transportation of the body

You may be able to do this yourself, but if you don’t have a vehicle that will accommodate the casket, coffin, or other container, you will need to use one that will. Double check your arrangements to transport the body from the place of death or morgue.

Also, there are almost always stipulations regarding transporting a body from a long distance, across state lines, or from abroad. Make sure to review them. Keep in mind there will be shipping or transport fees if you are unable to move the body yourself.

Due to the many legal things involved with a death, you may want to seek the help of a funeral director even if the state doesn’t require one.

In the case of a home funeral, how will you prepare and preserve the body at home?  

You will be responsible for bathing, dressing, and applying make-up to the body if you wish. Obtaining dry ice will be crucial as well to help preserve the body before the funeral and if you wish to have a viewing.

There is also the matter of finding a burial container such as a coffin and the material, if you want it to be biodegradable or made out of traditional wood. 

What if the body is going to be cremated?

If the body is going to be cremated, a funeral director is going to be the best resource for you regarding what needs to be done. They can help you with finding the right morgue for cremation, and can answer questions regarding state regulations, the proper types of burial urns, or anything else about the process.

A Cemetery of Your Own

If you don’t mind doing the work involved, establishing your own family cemetery on your own land may be the right choice for you. Once the paperwork and initial legwork is done, what you’ll have is the most personal way to care for your family and preserve their legacy for generations to come.


Sources

  1. “Definition of Family Cemetery.” Law Insider, www.lawinsider.com/dictionary/family-cemetery 
  2. “Establishing a Legal Family Cemetery.” Self Reliance, June 2018, www.self-reliance.com/2018/06/establishing-a-legal-family-cemetery/ 
  3. “How Do I Start a Family Cemetery.” Legal Beagle, 5 June 2017 legalbeagle.com/10043958-private-family-cemetery.html 
  4. “How You Can Be Buried on Your Own Property in All 50 States.” Rome Monuments, www.romemonuments.com/home-burials 

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