A Guide to the
Preservation of Burial Grounds
in New Hampshire.
A printer friendly version of this Handbook can be found here. You will need Adobe Acrobat to read it. Adobe is free, easy to install and can be found here.
This booklet was originally published in 1985 under the name Graveyard Restoration Handbook. We would like to thank the original members of the Handbook Committee for their dedication and hard work. This committee included Louise H. Tallman of Rye, Philip Wilcox of Durham, Bonnie Dunton of Farmington and Nancy Van Doorn also of Farmington. Valuable assistance was also received from James Garvin then of the New Hampshire Historical Society, David Watters of the University of New Hampshire English Department and Tom Morgan of the Rockingham Planning Commission. The Cole Brothers of the Exeter Monument Works were also supportive of the careful restoration work that can be done by amateurs.
The Handbook Revision Committee of the New Hampshire Old Gravestone Association now includes Doris Ashton of Ossipee, Clark Bagnall of Nashua, Joan Casarotto of Tamworth, Jean Mertinooke of Kensington Trina Purcell of Manchester (Editor), and Louise Tallman of Rye. We also wish to express our thanks to David Watters, whose encouragement, expertise and advice were invaluable to this project.
The purpose of this guide is to promote correct methods of identifying, recording, maintaining and preserving New Hampshire's old graveyards. There are many reasons why the members of a community should be interested in preserving these historic places. Our old graveyards are an integral part of our history and an invaluable resource for genealogists, historians and scholars. There are many challenges involved in graveyard preservation. The sites may be overgrown with brush. Markers may be leaning, broken or vandalized. Many stones are succumbing to acid rain, harsh New England weather and age. In addition, family members may be widely scattered, making it difficult to secure permission or funding for maintaining the site. Nonetheless, it is critical that these sites be preserved as the epitaphs on the stones may well be the only source of primary documentation recording a person's life and death. In many cases, this valuable information has been irretrievably lost. Restoration, recording and maintenance of local graveyards is, thus, one form of historical preservation.
In addition to providing an invaluable resource for genealogists and historians, old gravestones also serve a cultural interest. Changes in the style of stone used and the symbolic icons engraved on the stones reflect changes in religious and social attitudes of their times. The slate stones of colonial times are now recognized as fine examples of folk art. Victorian monuments often include finely carved artwork and statuary. And though epitaphs may be stock verses, they may also make personal statements about the men and women they memorialize.
Gravestones also promote tourism, encourage learning and protect our open space. We encourage people to explore roadside graveyards, or join the many local historians who offer tours. We ask that these old burial grounds be treated with care. Please stay on the paths if there are paths available. Do not touch the stones or attempt to take rubbings--old stones are fragile and easily damaged. Do not litter. Your effort to treat these burial grounds with respect helps preserve our cultural heritage.
Graveyard documentation, restoration and maintenance are subjects of some magnitude. This handbook is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to restoration and preservation, but will point interested parties in the right direction for further research.
A note on terminology: Historically, the word graveyard was a Puritan term and described a small plot of land where family or community members were interred. The use of the term cemetery was a Victorian innovation. Cemetery comes from the Greek word for sleep and dovetailed with the Victorian penchant for describing death as an eternal sleep. Typically, the term graveyard is used for older burial sites, while cemetery is used to refer to modern, public sites. For the purposes of this handbook we use the terms graveyard and gravesite as general terms to describe any burial ground regardless of size, location or inhabitants. We use the word plot to describe a piece of land that contains multiple graves and lot to describe a single burial place.
Graveyards may be found on either publicly or privately owned land. The legal issues surrounding these burial sites are not always clear. Though this handbook provides some guidelines, we encourage you to explore the State of New Hampshire Revised Statutes Annotated (RSAs) that pertain to these sites, and to work with property owners, local selectmen and cemetery trustees before starting on any type of restoration or preservation project.
Commonly asked questions about legal issues:
Who is responsible for the
care of a family graveyard when the family is scattered, or no longer
A town may vote funding for the care of an "abandoned" graveyard. In this case, the funds must be expended under the direction of the selectmen or the cemetery trustees.
Should an individual or community have an interest in preserving a site on private land, the interested party must have the landowner's permission. If the site is on public land, the interested party must have permission from the selectmen or cemetery trustees. Descendants have the right to maintain gravesites, as does the town if the site has been abandoned. It should be remembered that a graveyard is a form of permanent land use. Any work at these sites by individuals or the community is a form of adopting care on behalf of the family.
Are family members responsible
for the site's upkeep?
Does an individual have
the right to be interred in a family graveyard that is on private property?
What if I want to visit
a graveyard on private land?
Preservation is a means of preventing damage due to age, handling, or outside elements. Conservation is a means of restoring an artifact to its original condition. Because gravestones are historical artifacts, any conservation or preservation should, ideally, be done by a professional conservator. However, simple repairs can safely be done by volunteers and non-professionals if a few simple rules are followed. Here are the primary things to know before you attempt any kind of work.
The past few years have given rise to a wealth of reliable information on how to care for our historic graveyards. We encourage the use of these resources in addition to the guidelines provided by this handbook.