What happens when a cemetery is abandoned?

The Cemetery and Funeral Bureau canceled the Lincoln Memorial Park owner's license on Tuesday, Aug. 8, categorizing the cemetery as abandoned and outside the Bureau's regulatory authority. The Carson cemetery closed its gates indefinitely in early July.

But in the wake of the historic cemetery's abandonment, grieving families are left with more questions than answers. 

Here's what you need to know about cemetery abandonment and closures.

Understanding abandonment

Cemeteries are typically regulated at the state level. If you own a cemetery, you don't own the actual land it sits on. You own a license, unique to the purpose of burying loved ones. Often abandonment is the only way this ownership can be extinguished.

Abandonment of a cemetery has nothing to do with a dwindling number of buried individuals or even the amount of recent internments. Instead, cemetery abandonment is defined by the actual condition of the cemetery, and if the public can recognize it as a cemetery.

In the case of Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery, a fine was issued for violating the Bureau's cemetery maintenance standards back in September 2022, according to documents obtained by FOX 11.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Carson cemetery closes without notice, grieving family members seek answers

What happens to loved ones already buried in the cemetery?

For families of loved ones at Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery, either the city or the county will handle the future care and maintenance of the property, according to the Bureau.

In Lincoln Memorial's case, reimbursement through income available in the cemetery's endowment care fund could be made available to those with loved ones at the cemetery, according to officials.

For those with pre-purchased burials at Lincoln Memorial, the Bureau can authorize licensed funeral homes to perform burials at the cemetery.

But while legislation does appoint a city or county official to manage the abandoned cemetery, legislation does not require officials to keep this land as a cemetery after abandonment.

Officials do have the authority to decide whether or not particular land is still "suitable for cemetery use," according to legislation. For example, if an abandoned cemetery impedes city projects or developments, or if the cemetery is deemed a "menace to public health," authorities have the power to discontinue the cemetery.

Can bodies legally be relocated?

Short answer: Yes. 

But there must be evidence of a lack of maintenance and inappropriate surroundings is required to do so. Lincoln Memorial Park has no current plans of doing so, according to officials.

Can you build over a cemetery?

Knowingly building over a burial ground would not be wise.

Cemeteries have a huge impact on not only the environment, but public health. According to the World Health Organization, decomposing bodies release large amounts of methane gas. This disrupts the soil surrounding the buried body, making it an unpredictable and likely dangerous environment to build on.

That being said, specific legislation regarding the handling and notification of human remains found while building varies from state to state. 

Can families still grieve at the Lincoln Memorial?

In a recent statement, the Bureau shared the following:

"The Bureau understands this is a difficult situation for the families and community, and remains committed to continuing to collaborate with local, state, and community partners on the future of the cemetery’s care and maintenance. More information about the transition of responsibility of care over the cemetery is expected to be determined by local authorities over the coming weeks and months."

Advice for grieving families navigating next steps for their loved ones?

Read all cemetery documents, as each one's operations is nuanced. Understand the cemetery's right to relocate or close the cemetery, before deciding where to lay your loved one to rest.