wikiHow to Restore an Abandoned Cemetery

Old cemeteries are markers of human history; of all the love, sweat, toil, tears, joys and triumphs of the past. They are links to family we never knew, they are sources of history and they tell us a great deal about ourselves culturally and socially. Therefore, there is nothing sadder than to come across crumbling, decaying and near gone relics of cemeteries and to feel helpless to do anything about this loss of heritage. Yet, there are indeed things that can be done to restore orphaned cemeteries and return this heritage to current communities. In doing so, we all regain a sense of our own place in time and history.


  1. Image titled Restore an Abandoned Cemetery Step 1
    Locate a cemetery in need of tender loving care. Many decaying cemeteries are found in our once bustling townships in country and rural areas. Some are roadside cemeteries and others are neglected plots behind long-abandoned churches in cities, towns and villages. Perhaps there is one near you, or maybe you remember one from your regular vacation town. Wherever it is, make sure it is easily accessible to you so that you can visit it regularly and without too much distance or other disincentives that might stop you from being an active part of its restoration. If you are not a resident of the area in which the cemetery is located, this may cause red tape problems, but that will depend on the area and the responsible parties.
  2. Image titled Restore an Abandoned Cemetery Step 2
    Ascertain the ownership and responsibility for the cemetery. Orphaned cemeteries are still owned by someone or some entity and often it will be a municipal responsibility. Start by asking at your local government office and move from there. Even if a church appears to be responsible for a cemetery, sometimes the church has ceased to tend it through lack of funds or having moved its current cemetery to other places due to space constraints and nobody has thought to keep tending the old cemetery. In many cases, there may be as few as 5 - 10 headstones and where there are few remnants of the past like this, people tend to forget. You may find that there are trustees of cemeteries who are no longer able to keep up their "perpetual care" owing to age, death or funds having run out. Be sure to find out who may have custody of any remaining cemetery records, plots or maps. Older cemeteries often have no remaining record of who is buried there. If the gravestones are still extant and legible, write down as much information as you can, take digital photographs of each grave marker, index them by full name, surname first, and give a copy to the local heritage/historical society, and/or local library. If you want to be really fancy, you can include GPS coordinates too. Genealogists will thank you! Do some research on the Internet, in the local library, or at and in government offices.
  3. Image titled Restore an Abandoned Cemetery Step 3
    Seek permission to restore the gravestones and other cemetery areas. This task may be performed either before or after you have formed a team to help with the restoration. Sometimes permission can be the impetus for forming a group of devoted restorers; sometimes having the restoration team in place is the only motivation that will put in train the ability to get a permission for restoration. Play it by ear and do some preliminary homework as to logistics of permission and team formation first.
  4. Image titled Restore an Abandoned Cemetery Step 4
    Form a restoration team. The team's task will be to voluntarily restore the graves, gravestones and any other relevant cemetery features to their former glory. Some of the sources from which you may be able to draw interested persons include:
    • Place of worship - the congregation of a place of worship attached to a neglected cemetery may be interested in forming a restoration team, contributing members or even funds
    • Historical and cultural societies
    • Museum groups
    • Local residents' organizations
    • School groups and youth groups
  5. Image titled Restore an Abandoned Cemetery Step 5
    Outline your restoration project to the relevant clubs, places of worship, societies, etc. In each case, you will need to talk the to those in charge of groups. Although an in-depth restoration plan is best left to the restoration team and its own brainstorming meetings, you will need a blueprint to show others and convince them why the cemetery should be restored. Keep it short and persuasive in tone. Emphasize the historical, cultural, faith and community benefits of loving restoration of our human past.
  6. Image titled Restore an Abandoned Cemetery Step 6
    Ascertain the level of decay and the type of work that needs to be done. This is about drawing up a plan. The plan must include:
    • Assessment of the problems and things that need to be fixed
    • Assessment of the costs to do restorative work
    • Potential funding sources (government, events, raffles, donations, collections etc.)
    • Responsibilities for managing the restoration team, any legal and insurance issues and its finances (hint, keep this as simple as possible and ask for pro bono legal and financial advice)
    • Meeting dates for discussion, regular dates for restoration work, including that most mundane of needs - feeding the volunteer helpers!
  7. Image titled Restore an Abandoned Cemetery Step 7
    Seek government and municipal grants for restorative work. Many heritage and restoration grants are offered by government and local government. Look at websites for national, regional and local governments in the areas of the arts, heritage, environmental restoration, cultural, and community services. Contact your local politicians for information and support.
  8. Image titled Restore an Abandoned Cemetery Step 8
    Find a drawcard. This means finding something of interest in the cemetery that will give you media coverage and draw in more interest and donations to the cause. Ask these questions:
    • What is the cemetery known for?
    • Do burials in the cemetery reflect a certain famous event in history? For example, deaths by disease during transportation to the colonies, deaths by a virulent flu ravaging a country, deaths from a shipwreck etc.?
    • Is the cemetery neglected because of language or cultural changes? For instance, in Quebec, Canada, many English graveyards in the Eastern townships have been neglected as the social balance changes to more French-speaking inhabitants than English-speaking inhabitants.
    • Is there one famous, infamous or relatively important burial in the cemetery?
  9. Image titled Restore an Abandoned Cemetery Step 9
    Direct the restoration team. Set specific tasks for the team, such as:
    • Restoring fallen over headstones;
    • Restoring misplaced headstones;
    • Mending broken gravestones and statues;
    • Remarking the borders around graves;
    • Polishing gravestones;
    • Weeding and replanting;
    • Moss and lichen removal (unless your group considers this to add a pleasant touch)
    • General tidy-up
  10. Image titled Restore an Abandoned Cemetery Step 10
    Hold an unveiling ceremony. When the restoration team has completed its restoration task, hold an event that will attract locals, history buffs, the curious and the media.
    • Have a commemorative plaque made for unveiling that specifies the reason for the restoration, the name of the restoration team, the date and any other pertinent details.
    • Send out press releases to the media.
    • Have snacks, drinks and music on hand to make this a real social occasion.
    • Ask the local mayor or some other local dignitary to give a speech.
  11. Image titled Restore an Abandoned Cemetery Step 11
    Maintain the restoration team. Do not disband when the restoration is complete. Continue to tend the cemetery. Continue to hold events to attract funding and to maintain interest in the site. Post information online to attract history buffs and link this with the local community's tourism industry. Heritage tourism is a fast-growing industry and restored cemeteries are a definite part of such touristic activities.


  • If possible, publish the transcription on a web site so that researchers can easily find the information.
  • Use the Internet as another possible source for keeping the past alive. Some people have taken it upon themselves to transcribe the names and other information from gravestones and place this information on the Internet so that everyone can trace their family tree and peek into history that might otherwise be lost.
  • Digital pictures are inexpensive and can convey much more information than a transcript (worth a thousand words, as they say). Consider including photos with the transcripts. Often a photo processing program can glean details from a photo that might have been otherwise missed.
  • Many cemetery records have been lost over the years. Make copies of the transcriptions available to the property owners, as well as the local libraries.


  • Before work begins, someone needs to "survey" the cemetery--that means, take down in writing the content of all the grave markers, with as much description of the style of the marker and its relationship to other markers, as possible. Genealogy researchers and historians often find clues by the mere positioning of graves in relation to each other, and by the symbolism of the decorations on the graves. This was very codified in the 19th century, and much information can be gleaned from the art or inclusions attached to the markers or decorating the graves. Those who survey should write down EXACTLY what the markers say, regardless of their own opinions or outside information about the deceased. A copy of the resulting list and/or descriptions should be filed with the place of worship or the city archives, or with a local genealogy society. It's also helpful to post the list to genealogy sites on the Internet. It's very important that this be done BEFORE restoration because in the process tombstones and other art can be destroyed or misplaced. Then it needs to be updated AFTER restoration.

Sources and Citations

  • These are not commercial links but are placed here by way of extension and bolstering of the article:

    • - thousands of transcriptions of cemetery records and tombstone inscriptions, from cemeteries in the US, Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries.
    • Find a Grave - Wikipedia explanation of an amazing grave finding resource

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