Q. I’m thinking of buying a home with a colonial-era cemetery on the property. Do I have any legal obligations regarding the cemetery?
There are over 300 private family cemeteries in the town of York alone, so you’re not alone. Many people in our area have bodies buried somewhere on their property.
When there's a family cemetery on private property in Maine, you are not required to maintain it, but you can’t prevent someone else from doing so. In fact, towns and municipalities have an obligation to maintain the graves of veterans from the Revolution onward (interestingly, this includes any Confederate veterans who are buried in Maine - their graves are even marked with the Confederate flag).
The state has a permanent easement to all old cemeteries in Maine, which they usually refer to as "ancient". What's considered an ancient cemetery? Anything established in 1880 or earlier. That means that if the spouse, ancestors or descendants of the interred want to visit the cemetery, they can, even if it means crossing your property to access it if there is no other access (using the most direct route and during reasonable hours).
And old cemeteries have to be considered when you’re planning to build. There are many family graveyards that now sit on what looks like just a plain old wooded lot. It can be really difficult to tell the difference between a sunken, weathered grave marker and a rock. If it appears that there may be an ancient cemetery or bodies buried on land you purchased, before construction continues you or the excavator has to notify local and state officials. The landowner or excavator also has to arrange (and pay for) an appropriate investigation to determine the location and existence of any graves. Picking out paint colors might be the most important thing to my clients who are building, but this is just one of the many, many reasons why painstaking site evaluation is critical in order to head off potential issues.
You’ve also got to have enough room to build with the proper setbacks. For example, I worked with a family that wanted to add on, but there was an old cemetery to take into consideration. In this case, we had to go over who wanted to be buried there in the future (the land had been in the same hands for generations), allot room for those future burials, then change the deed to remove a section of what had been recorded as cemetery land, making that land available for building.
If you're looking for more information about old cemeteries in Maine, an excellent resource is the Maine Old Cemetery Association.
Troy Williams has been the #1 agent in York county since 2012. His work ethic and unmatched expertise and knowledge of the local real estate market keep him consistently one of the top realtors in Maine. His office can be reached at 1-207-351-8188.
"Ask Troy" and other articles focused on New Hampshire and Maine real estate and area information are featured monthly in the Williams Realty Partners newsletter Connect; if you'd like to receive the newsletter please email jenna@williamsrealtypartners.