Grave Matter in Indiana
On September 2, 2010, I attended a talk at the Elkhart Historical Society given by Jeannie R. Regan-Dinius. Regan-Dinius is the Director of Special Initiatives for the Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology. She discussed the state of cemeteries in Indiana, the progress at various levels to protect and restore them, and what we can do to help.
Regan-Dinius explained that cemeteries are part of our cultural landscape. In Egyptian times, pyramids protected the dead. She also pointed out that Native Americans used mounds for burials. Many times Euro-American families would bury their kin next to the mounds or over Indian burial grounds. Regan-Dinius told us that Indiana has strong cemetery laws, and we could have just about the strongest laws of all the states put together.
Regan-Dinius discussed legal protection of cemeteries. 20,000 cemeteries are located in the state of Indiana. Elkhart County is the best county in protecting and cataloging our county cemeteries. When people first discover a burial site in the state of Indiana, they need to contact Regan-Dinius to check if the site needs cataloged.
When you report the site to her office, include the kind of art or architecture, general religion, ethnicity, and what condition the cemetery is in. Check the resources such as whether the cemetery is publicly or privately owned. To find this out, go to the courthouse and determine who is paying taxes on the land.
Regan-Dinius explained it is illegal to farm or vandalize a cemetery. If you run into this, report the situation to the local law enforcement or conservation officer. Another law states the fact you can not disturb 100 feet in front of the cemetery. You need to contact Regan-Dinius to get permission from the state to build around a cemetery. The government remains exempt from this law.
If you seek sunken gravestones, contact the office to ask for a permit. Also, if you want to visit a cemetery on someone’s land, get permission from the landowner. You do not need a permit to clean stones, mow, make repairs, or dig holes for placement of stones. You do need written permission from the landowner to enter the cemetery and do repair work. Selling grave artifacts is against the law. An artifact date starts at Dec 31, 1870. If you want to replace the stone with a newer stone, you can keep the old stone.
Cemetery Commissioners can also be the county commissioners. Twenty-two counties have a cemetery commissioner and 70 do not. The job of the cemetery commissioner is to reset and straighten monuments, level and seed the ground, and construct fences. They also destroy detrimental plants, noxious weeds, and rank vegetation. However, some plants are part of the cemetery. The yucca plant symbolizes keeping the soul in the ground. When cleaning a cemetery and you run across a yucca plant, leave it alone, no matter how unruly it seems.
Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology provides a website that has all historical sites and cemeteries listed in their databases. The URL is http://in.gov/dnr/historic/4505.htm. Click on SHARRAD and then click on Enter SHARRAD as a Guest to access the database.