Cemeteries are important repositories of history and culture, in addition to memorializing the deaths of individual people. Cemeteries associated with historic events such as the Civil War can be pathways into historic records. The concept of memorializing extends far beyond individual remains, also including “gravestones, iconography, mausoleums, statuary,” and other architectural components of cemeteries, such as mortuary or caretaker buildings. Sometimes cemeteries contain genealogical records otherwise not available prior to routinization of vital records reporting in the early 20th century.
Lack of maintenance and the abandonment of cemeteries threaten these important historic resources. In New Jersey, major causes of cemetery decline include ethnic population movement, dissolution of congregations associated with religious cemeteries, government policies that explicitly promote cemetery desecration, and prioritization of development. In at least one city, high level municipal officials advocated for flattening or removal of gravestones as early as 1939 and as recently as the 2010s. Stories of developers treating human remains as inconveniences or interference with construction projects are all too common in recent memory.
The impact of decline and abandonment on New Jersey cemeteries can be significantly reduced by changes in the New Jersey cemetery laws as follows:
- The New Jersey Cemetery Act currently focuses only on privately owned cemetery companies and exempts religious cemeteries from its provisions. Religious cemeteries are not required to have trust funds to ensure maintenance and upkeep, to register with the cemetery board, or comply with other provisions that facilitate preservation.
- The New Jersey Abandoned Cemetery Maintenance and Preservation Act’s definition of abandoned cemeteries excludes religious and publicly owned cemeteries, requires no more than 10% of burials to have occurred after 1880, and is limited to cemeteries that are less than 10 acres.
It has been twenty-five years since Preservation New Jersey first declared cemeteries were one of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Places in New Jersey. Now with 10 Most nominations in 2022 of cemeteries including Johnsons Cemetery (Camden), Dutch Reformed Church Graveyard (Belleville), and Doremus Cedar Grove Farm Burial Ground/Canfield Cemetery (Cedar Grove) – Preservation New Jersey reiterates the urgency with which New Jersey state law must be changed to save these keys to our individual and statewide histories.
Preservation New Jersey