Cemeteries are not always the final resting place of remains, with an emphasis on the word final. There are a number of reasons for removing remains, either whole or singular bones of an individual, but there are also reasons for the relocation of an entire cemetery.
1. Forgotten and Found: One of the main reasons for moving an entire cemetery is because it is forgotten and refound during construction. While we often think of cemeteries as important memorials, over time they can become overgrown, lost, and forgotten. I previously posted about a cemetery found during construction in Tennessee during a simple home project. In Iowa, a similar surprise was found during construction of a condo complex. The construction teams uncovered 900 burials, and had no markers either wooden or stone, to show where the cemetery had once been. Local belief was that the cemetery, belonging to the first Catholic Church in the area, had been relocated in the 1850’s. However, comparison between the number of burials found and the information on the cemetery shows that not a single individual was actually removed from the original site. Before construction could proceed at the site, law required that the remains be relocated. Archaeologists aided in the removal and reburial of the individuals to Mount Olivet Cemetery.
2. Construction: Not every cemetery found during construction and expansion is a surprise. Sometimes older cemeteries are moved on purpose in order to allow for growth of an area. Change in the layout or development of an area can require movement of a cemetery. During the 1930’s, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) relocated a high number of roads and electrical wires in order to create a river system that would allow for the creation of a water fueled power station. This required the relocation of almost 20,000 graves to protect them against flooding and destruction during the road relocation. The entire process was was thorough and records of every burial moved can be easily found online.
3. Expansion: Along the same lines as the previous reason, cemeteries may be moved because an area is changing and growing. Early cemeteries were placed at the edges of communities, but growth since their creation can mean that cemeteries end up within the community instead of on the outskirts. In order to continuing growing, communities can choose to relocate a cemetery. At O’Hare Airport in Chicago there was a drawn out battle over the expansion of the airport into an area that contained a historic cemetery. At first, the members of the Church community stood firm against relocation. However, the plans for construction continued. Family members were given the option to move their ancestors and relatives on their own accord if they could prove that they were the next of kin. If the individual is not claimed they will be relocated by archaeologists to a nearby cemetery.
4. Natural Disasters: Flooding can be a major threat to cemeteries, especially newer ones with intact coffins. During Hurricane Katrina, a number of cemeteries were badly damaged by the flooding and coffins were quickly found floating in the currents. While many of the coffins were tracked down, and archaeologists were able to identify and return the remains of some, there are still a number of ones which have gone missing. Identification of the coffins and remains allowed for the individuals to be reburied. If they were specifically identified they could be placed back in their original plot, but all found were given proper reburials. Even now, coffins displaced from the flooding are still being found in swamps.
5. Honoring the Dead: When some cemeteries become run down and no longer properly memorialize the dead they are disinterred and reburied in a more prominent location. On the campus at Texas A&M University, a cemetery dedicated to veterans, including the remains of a past university president were moved to better memorialize the individuals. A cemetery in Georgia was also relocated due to the run down nature of the property and its proximity to a new airport. Archaeologists in the community excavated the cemetery, and then reburied the individuals in an effort to create a location that would better protect and memorialize those buried there. Many of the markers had been destroyed or lost, and it had been forgotten. By moving the cemetery and remarking the new graves, the community can better remember those deceased.
Quinn 2008. Lost Coffins part of Katrina Legacy. Newser. http://www.newser.com/story/36199/lost-coffins-remain-part-of-katrinas-legacy.html
Smith 2011. Who speaks for the dead? Chicago Tribune. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-03-21/news/ct-met-bensenville-cemetery-20110321_1_o-hare-cemetery-bensenville-cemetery-relatives
Tennessee Valley Authority 2011. http://www.tva.gov/river/landandshore/culturalresources/cemeteries.htm
Crumb 2009. Forgotten Iowa Graveyard Stops Cemetery Construction. Seattle World and Nation News. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2009913275_apussurprisecemetery.html