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If you must move a cemetery . . .

It’s never something you want to think about, and it should always be the choice of last resort, but there are times when a cemetery has to be moved in order to preserve and protect the remains. How this is done is established by state law. In South Carolina it is Section 27-43-10 through 40.

In terms of the law, the only requirement for the actual excavation is that the work be done “under the supervision of the governing body of the county, who shall employ a funeral director licensed by this State.” What this means in practice is that a funeral director be retained to provide respect for the deceased.

The problem is that low bid firms hired by the governing body or the funeral director have no knowledge in osteology (human skeletal remains), period burial practices (like the types of coffins used during different periods or the social status that different practices reflect), or even how to best excavate human remains. Often these low-bid firms use backhoes to scoop up some soil and dump it in a pasteboard box, claiming that no bone would be left anyway. Or sometimes the laborers they hire have no idea what they are actually looking for. The result – human remains are disrespected by being overlooked, damaged, and destroyed.

But more than that, all of us lose part of our heritage – we miss the opportunity to have the dead teach the living – about diet, disease, social customs, family heritage, and lifeways.

There is an alternative – the use of forensic anthropologists to remove human remains. These individuals are trained in the excavation and analysis of skeletal material – they can recognize even small, fragmentary bones. And they are trained to recognize different coffin fragments, handles, clothing, and other remains that might be preserved. We believe that only appropriately-trained personnel should be involved in the excavation and recovery of all human remains, whether ancient or recent. Baseline qualifications for archaeologists are available from the Secretary of the Interior. We also support guidelines for professional qualifications and conduct established by the Register of Professional Archaeologists and the Society for American Archaeology. The controlled excavation and collection of human remains takes a significant amount of time, often measured in days. Professional archaeologists will not violate standard professional protocol for burial excavation unless significant extenuating conditions, such as safety or severe weather, are present. Thus, the involvement of professional archaeologists in burial excavation and removal will always slow the rate of processing at the site.

Not only will the remains be recovered with respect and as completely as possible, but forensic archaeologists also have the training to identify burial locations, helping to ensure that no one is left behind.

There are a number of studies that a trained forensic anthropologist will want to undertake should it be necessary to remove human remains -- and these studies are critical in the process of "the dead teaching the living." For example, samples will be taken to help identify any parasites (such as hookworm or tapeworm) or insects that might have been present. This information can help us better understand the disease and diet of the individual, as well as provide information concerning the treatment of the corpse. It is at times possible to obtain information through DNA analysis on blood grouping, HLA typing, and antibody absorption -- all efforts that while time consuming and expensive provide otherwise unavailable genetic information. A new technique, called histomorthometrics, allows microscopic age determination by thin sectioning long bones. Carbon isotope analysis is useful in determining the diet of the population. Trace element analysis can also address a broad range of questions about diet and contamination or poisoning of an individual. While some tests are destructive and may be unacceptable to families, there are also nondestructive techniques (such as X-ray fluorescence, electron microprobe, and neutron activation). Bones can also be examined for evidence of heavy metals to address other questions concerning diet and disease. 

Sufficient time should be allocated for the scientific study of human remains and grave goods prior to reburial. Periods measured in hours or days are unreasonably short and fail to allow the full investigation of the recovered remains. Weeks or months are more appropriate in most cases.

FAQs About Cemetery and Burial Relocations

A developer bought the land my family cemetery is on and has obtained the permission of the local government to move my cemetery. Will they be required to use a forensic anthropologist?

No. They will only be required to hire a funeral director. Then they are allowed to get the cheapest bid they can find for digging up your loved ones. You can, however, insist that a forensic anthropologist be hired – remember, state law gives you a say in the matter.

I’ve heard that archaeologists are ghouls who only want to dig up bones to study them.

You’ve heard wrong. We here at Chicora would prefer never to move a burial, much less a cemetery. But if human remains must be moved we believe that – with the family’s permission – the remains have the potential to tell us a great deal about life here in South Carolina. By studying human remains we have the opportunity to learn things that are in no history book or family diary. This is an opportunity for the dead to teach the living – to provide a continuing legacy.

Will archaeologists dig up or study my ancestor’s bones without my permission?

No. We believe that it is essential to obtain the consent of the family. Some families agree that archaeological study is useful – helping them learn more about the past and their family members; some disagree. We respect your right to make that decision. But, you should still consider how you want the remains handled – with a shovel, or worse, with a backhoe – or by someone trained to carefully hand excavate the bones and recover as many of them as possible. We believe that trained, professional archaeologists will do a far better job at recovering your loved ones than a day laborer with no previous training or understanding.

Will an archaeologist be more expensive?

Possibly. But there is a world of difference between skilled, careful excavation and a backhoe. You need to make the decision how valuable your family remains are and what you feel is the appropriate level of respect to show them.

Are all the tests you talk about really necessary?

If a grave must be moved, there is that one opportunity to allow the dead to teach the living. If a family is willing to allow their loved one to be examined, yes, these tests are necessary since they provide a rare glimpse into the past that would not otherwise be available. Moving a grave is traumatic -- at least this level of investigation provides some positive outcome, providing a legacy of information.  "Mortui Vivos Docent" is Latin for "The dead teach the living" -- expressing the hope that in even in death there can be much learned.

What else do forensic archaeologists do?

We can identify the boundaries of a cemetery, how many graves are in a family plot (even those that are unmarked), and we can examine the construction techniques of different vaults to help you determine the best means of repairing them. We can even examine coffin remains to help date the materials. Forensic archaeologists also work with law enforcement to identify and recovery crime victims. See more on our Forensic Archaeology page.

SC Archaeology   |   Preservation Regulations   |   Collecting Artifacts   |   Cemetery Relocation

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