Cemeteries are an important feature of South Carolina's diverse heritage. In addition to marking the final resting places of our ancestors, they yield information about our state's social, religious, artistic, and cultural heritage. They also contain genealogical information that cannot be found anywhere else.
Deterioration from natural forces such as weathering and uncontrolled vegetation and insensitive development threaten our historic cemeteries. The involvement of individuals and organizations with an interest and commitment to saving local history and culture is critical to protecting and preserving the state's historic cemeteries.
The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) does not have funds for maintenance of historic cemeteries or legal authority to acquire cemeteries or enforce laws protecting cemeteries. The SHPO has compiled the following information to aid local efforts in saving historic cemeteries:
- The Association for Gravestone Studies includes sources for cemetery restoration and gravestone cleaning, interpreting symbolism on gravestones, and more
- The Chicora Foundation website provides a list of publications on cemetery disaster planning, recordation, and the preservation of African American cemeteries, as well as conservation tips
- Preservation Brief 48: Preserving Grave Markers in Historic Cemeteries by the National Park Service
- Preservation Hotline #6: FAQ About Cemetery Preservation (PDF) by the SC SHPO
- Preservation Hotline #7: Grave Concerns: Protecting and Repairing Historic Cemeteries (PDF) by the SC SHPO
- Silent Cities: Cemeteries & Classrooms (PDF) by the SC Department of Archives and History, 1997
- South Carolina’s Historic Cemeteries: A Preservation Handbook (PDF) by Susan H. McGahee and Mary W. Edmonds for the SC SHPO
- The SC Genealogical Society Cemetery GPS Mapping Project contains 17,000+ cemeteries and 200+ Cemetery Survey Book Surname Indexes
- The National Park Service's National Center for Preservation Technology and Training completed a study in 2011 to evaluate general cleaning needs of marble government-issued headstones. The findings are found in Best Practice Recommendations for Cleaning Government-Issued Headstones (PDF)
There are numerous South Carolina laws governing cemeteries. The following are of particular interest to those concerned with preserving and protecting historic cemeteries:
- SC Code 16-17-600 Destruction or desecration of human remains or repositories thereof including Native American burial ground or burial mounds
- SC Code 27-43-10 through 27-43-40 Removal of abandoned cemeteries
- SC Code 6-1-35 Preservation of abandoned or unmaintained cemeteries
- SC Code 27-43-310 Access to cemeteries on private property
- SC Code 16-11-780 Prohibition on entering certain lands to discover, uncover, move, remove, or attempt to remove archaeological resource
Cemetery Vandalism & Destruction
If you learn that a cemetery is being vandalized, disturbed, or destroyed, contact local law enforcement authorities immediately. State laws make it a felony to destroy or desecrate burial grounds and establish a legal framework for moving abandoned cemeteries when necessary. The responsibility for enforcing state cemetery laws belongs to the county sheriff or local police department. Because local authorities may not be familiar with the details of cemetery statutes as you are, be prepared to inform them of pertinent laws.
After contacting local law enforcement, notify other interested groups, such as local historical organizations and the local newspaper. Prosecute offenders who are caught and publicize the arrests. Suits can also be filed in civil court to seek compensation for damages.
To discourage vandalism, consider the following suggestions:
- Ask the local law enforcement agency to put your cemetery on its patrol routes. Ask their advice when planning any security measures.
- Ask the neighbors to watch for suspicious activity in the area and to report to the police or sheriff if they see any.
- Maintain the property. Vandals are often attracted to property that appears neglected.
- Protection devices like fences, lights, and alarms may help. Make sure they are in working order. Fences should keep livestock out of rural cemeteries and deter vandals, while allowing people to see in. High, solid fences can hide illegal activities.
- Consider posting rules and regulations to show that the cemetery is maintained.
Publications that list gravestone inscriptions from South Carolina cemeteries can be found at:
- local libraries and archives
- The South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina
- The South Carolina Department of Archives and History
In the 1930’s the Works Progress Administration (WPA) recorded names, birth dates, and death dates from gravestones in cemeteries across the state. They are available at the following locations:
- The South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina: volumes containing transcriptions
- The South Carolina Historical Society: transcriptions, organized by last name on microfilm
- The South Carolina Department of Archives and History: tombstone transcriptions on microfiche
The following resources provide additional information on gravestone inscriptions:
- The Tombstone Transcription Project: South Carolina
- Interment: South Carolina Cemeteries
- Cemetery Junction: South Carolina Cemeteries
Preserving Historic Cemeteries Workshop (2022) Presentations (PDFs):
- The South Carolina Perpetual Cemetery Board: Who They Are and What They Do
- Stewards for the Ancestors: Acting to Preserve and Protect Graves and Cemeteries
- Developing a Preservation Plan
- Iconography of Death: Identifying the Symbols
- A History of African American Traditional Burial
- How to Map Your Cemetery Notes
- Restoration Efforts at Historic Randolph Cemetery
- We Are Going to Do Something: Cemetery Preservation Basics for Pro-active Preservationist