Virginia Cemetery Laws

A. It shall be unlawful for any person to conduct any type of archaeological field investigation involving the removal of human skeletal remains or associated artifacts from any unmarked human burial regardless of age of an archaeological site and regardless of ownership without first receiving a permit from the Director.

B. Where unmarked burials are not part of a legally chartered cemetery, archaeological excavation of such burials pursuant to a permit from the Director shall be exempt from the requirements of §§ 57-38.1 and 57-39. However, such exemption shall not apply in the case of human burials within formally chartered cemeteries that have been abandoned.

C. The Department shall be considered an interested party in court proceedings considering the abandonment of legally constituted cemeteries or family graveyards with historic significance. A permit from the Director is required if archaeological investigations are undertaken as a part of a court-approved removal of a cemetery.

D. The Board shall promulgate regulations implementing this section that provide for appropriate public notice prior to issuance of a permit, provide for appropriate treatment of excavated remains, the scientific quality of the research conducted on the remains, and the appropriate disposition of the remains upon completion of the research. The Department may carry out such excavations and research without a permit, provided that it has complied with the substantive requirements of the regulations promulgated pursuant to this section.

E. Any interested party may appeal the Director’s decision to issue a permit or to act directly to excavate human remains to the local circuit court. Such appeal must be filed within fourteen days of the Director’s decision.

1989, c. 656.


A. Owners of private property on which a cemetery or graves are located shall have a duty to allow ingress and egress to the cemetery or graves by (i) family members and descendants of deceased persons buried there; (ii) any cemetery plot owner; and (iii) any person engaging in genealogy research, who has given reasonable notice to the owner of record or to the occupant of the property or both. No landowner shall erect a wall, fence or other structure or device that prevents ingress and egress to the cemetery or grave, unless the wall, fence or other structure or device has a gate or other means by which ingress and egress can be accomplished by persons specified in this subsection. The landowner may designate the frequency of access, hours and duration of the access and the access route if no traditional access route is obviously visible by a view of the property. The landowner, in the absence of gross negligence or willful misconduct, shall be immune from liability in any civil suit, claim, action, or cause of action arising out of the access granted pursuant to this section.

B. The right of ingress and egress granted to persons specified in subsection A shall be reasonable and limited to the purposes of visiting graves, maintaining the gravesite or cemetery, or conducting genealogy research. The right of ingress and egress shall not be construed to provide a right to operate motor vehicles on the property for the purpose of accessing a cemetery or gravesite unless there is a road or adequate right-of-way that permits access by a motor vehicle and the owner has given written permission to use the road or right-of-way of necessity.

C. Any person entering onto private property to access a gravesite or cemetery shall be responsible for conducting himself in a manner that does not damage the private lands, the cemetery or gravesites and shall be liable to the owner of the property for any damage caused as a result of his access.

D. Any person denied reasonable access under the provisions of this section may bring an action in the circuit court where the property is located to enjoin the owner of the property from denying the person reasonable ingress and egress to the cemetery or gravesite. In granting such relief, the court may (i) set the frequency of access, hours and duration of the access and (ii) award reasonable attorney fees and costs to the person denied such access.

E. The provisions of this section shall not apply to any deed or other written instrument that creates or reserves a cemetery or gravesite on private property.

1993, c. 713; 2004, c. 831; 2008, c. 390; 2011, c. 257.


A. When a graveyard, wholly or partly within any county, city, or town, has been abandoned, or is unused and neglected by the owners, and such graveyard is necessary, in whole or in part, for public purposes, authorized by the charter of such city or town, or by the general statutes providing for the government of counties, cities, and towns, such county, city, or town may acquire title to such burying ground by condemnation proceedings, to be instituted and conducted in the manner and mode prescribed in the statutes providing for the exercise of the power of eminent domain by counties, cities, and towns. The locality may continue to maintain all or a portion of the burying ground as a graveyard.

B. The court taking jurisdiction of the case may, in its discretion, require the county, city, or town to acquire the whole burying ground, in which event the county, city, or town may use such part thereof as may be necessary for its purposes and sell the residue. The court, however, shall direct that the remains interred in such graveyard, if possible so to do, be removed to some repository used and maintained as a cemetery.

C. Should any county, city, or town, having acquired by any means land on which an abandoned graveyard is located, including lands acquired in accordance with § 22.1-126.1 for educational purposes, initiate plans to use that land for purposes other than to maintain the graveyard, such county, city, or town shall, prior to completion of said plans, develop and engage in active public notice and participation regarding efforts to avoid adverse impacts to the graveyard or to remove the remains interred in such graveyard to an alternative repository. Such public notice and participation shall include, at minimum, publication of at least one notice in a local newspaper of general circulation, notice posted at the site of the graveyard, and notice to and consultation with any historic preservation or other such commission, as well as area historical and genealogical societies, and at least one public hearing. The locality shall make a good faith effort to identify and contact living descendants of the persons buried in the graveyard, if known. In addition, the locality is encouraged to post such notice on the Internet, including appropriate websites and through the use of social media, and to consult with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Having given all public comment due consideration, the county, city, or town is encouraged first to adjust plans to maintain the graveyard as part of the larger land use plan or, if that is not feasible, to request permission to proceed with removal through the court or through the Virginia Department of Historic Resources should archaeological removal be appropriate. In any event, any removal of remains should be given all due care and respect, as should the selection of and reburial in another cemetery. This requirement for public notice, consultation, consideration of comments, and following due process for removal of human remains shall apply in cases where the presence of an abandoned graveyard is discovered during either the planning or construction phases of a project.

D. Any county, city, or town that has acquired by any means land on which an abandoned cemetery or gravesite of Virginians held as slaves at the time of their deaths is located shall notify the Virginia Department of Historic Resources of the location of such cemetery or gravesite. The Department shall record the location of the cemetery or gravesite. A listing of the locations of all abandoned cemeteries and gravesites of Virginians held as slaves at the time of their deaths that have been provided to the Department shall be maintained by the Department as a public record.

Code 1919, § 54; 1985, c. 95; 2010, c. 617; 2014, c. 588.


The owner of any land on which is located an abandoned family graveyard, and there has been no reservation of rights in such graveyard, or when the beneficiaries of any reservations of rights desire to waive such rights, and in which no body has been interred for twenty-five years may file a bill in equity in the circuit court of the county or in the circuit or corporation court wherein such land is located for the purpose of having the remains interred in such graveyard removed to some more suitable repository. To such bill all persons in interest, known or unknown, other than the plaintiffs shall be duly made defendants. If any of such parties be unknown, the plaintiffs shall undertake active, good faith efforts to locate interested parties including, at a minimum, publication of at least one notice in a local newspaper of general circulation, notice posted at the site of the graveyard, and notice to and consultation with any historic preservation or other such commission, as well as area historical and genealogical societies. In addition, the plaintiff is encouraged to post such notice on the Internet, including appropriate websites and through the use of social media, and to consult with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Upon the case being properly matured for hearing, and proof being made of the propriety of the removal, the court may order the removal made and the remains properly deposited in another place, at the expense of the petitioner. Such removal and reinterment shall be done with due care and decency.

In determining the question of removal the court shall consider the historical significance of such graveyard and shall consider as well the wishes of the parties concerned so far as they are brought to its knowledge, including the desire of any beneficiaries of any reservation of rights to waive such reservation of rights in favor of removal, and so considering shall exercise a sound discretion in granting or refusing the relief prayed for.

1966, c. 444; 1970, c. 377; 2014, c. 588.


Any heir at law or descendant of a deceased person interred in an abandoned family graveyard in which no body has been interred for twenty-five years may file a bill in equity in the circuit court of the county or city wherein the land is located for the purpose of having the remains interred in the graveyard removed to some more suitable repository. The owner of the land, any beneficiaries of any reservation of rights, and all other persons in interest, known or unknown, other than the plaintiffs shall be duly made defendants. If any of such parties are unknown, notice may be given by order of publication. Upon the case being properly matured for hearing, and proof being made of the propriety of the removal, the court may order the removal and the remains properly deposited in another place, at the expense of the petitioner. The removal and reinterment shall be done with due care and decency.

The bill may be filed and relief granted regardless of whether there has been a reservation of rights in the graveyard and regardless of whether the beneficiaries of any reservation of rights desire to waive their rights. In determining the question of removal, the court shall consider the historical significance of the graveyard and the wishes of the parties concerned so far as they are brought to its knowledge, including the desire of any beneficiaries of any reservation in rights, and shall exercise sound discretion in granting or refusing the relief prayed for.

1990, c. 562.


When the owners of a graveyard, or the trustees of a graveyard left in trust, by reason of the infancy or the disability of any of them or by reason of their being numerous or partly unknown, or of the residence of any of them being unknown, cannot or cannot conveniently unite in making disposition of the same, any one or more of such owners or trustees, or, in any event, any county, city or town of this Commonwealth, if a private graveyard or pauper’s graveyard (potter’s field), which has been dedicated for such use either by written instrument, or by use by the public for such purpose, be within the boundaries thereof and the private graveyards be not connected with any church or church property and said graveyards be in a condition of neglect or disuse, or in the case of a pauper’s graveyard is in a condition of neglect, or disuse, or is located in a location which is inappropriate for its continued use as a burial ground, may file a bill in equity in the circuit court of the county or in the circuit or corporation court of the corporation wherein the graveyard is located for the purpose of having the remains interred in such graveyard removed to some more suitable repository, and the land thus vacated sold and the costs of removal and interment and the costs of suit including reasonable attorney’s fees paid out of the proceeds of the sale. To such bill all owners of the graveyard or any person having a right therein, and in the case of a pauper’s graveyard the dedicator thereof, his heirs or successors in interest, if known, and if not known, such unknown parties shall be made defendants by the name of “person or persons unknown who may be the owners, heirs, or successors in interest of the unknown dedicator of the pauper’s graveyard which is the subject of this suit,” other than the plaintiffs shall be duly made defendants.

The bill shall show the title of the land, the interest of all parties, so far as known, and the reasons why relief is sought and that it is practicable. And upon the case being properly matured for hearing, and proofs being adduced of the propriety of the removal, the court shall have power to have the removal made and the remains properly deposited in another place, and to make sale of the grounds vacated by the removal and to have the costs of removal and reinterment, including the costs of the new place of interment, and of putting it in all respects in suitable condition and erecting upon it suitable memorials and the costs of the suit paid out of the proceeds of the sale.

Such removal and reinterment shall be done with due care and decency. But, unless the bill be filed by a city, town or county, the court shall not order such removal and reinterment until due and sufficient guaranty be given it that the proceeds of sale of the grounds proposed to be sold will be sufficient to meet all costs that may be incurred unless some party to the cause or other person gives due security to make good any deficit.

In determining the question of removal or sale the court shall consider as well the wishes of the parties concerned so far as they are brought to its knowledge as the proofs, and so considering shall exercise a sound discretion in granting or, refusing the relief prayed for, except that in case the bill be filed by a city, town or county, the court shall be guided by considerations of public welfare.

The court may distribute any surplus of the proceeds of sale according to their rights among the owners of the ground sold or the parties entitled thereto, and in the case of the sale of a pauper’s graveyard wherein the original owner, his heirs and successors in interest are unknown, or there has been a dedication of said land for pauper’s graveyard, the court, after the due consideration, upon application of the county, city or town may permit the proceeds of the sale to be utilized for other public uses of a charitable nature including the purchase of land for parks, public offices and other municipal uses including the construction of buildings thereon.

No graveyard to which there is no right-of-way except over or through some person’s land shall be sold hereunder without the consent of such person.

1946, p. 407; Michie Suppl. 1946, § 58a; 1968, c. 83.


When the owners of any private graveyard, not connected with any church or church property, abandon the graveyard and allow it to fall into a condition of neglect and disuse, so that it is unsightly and thereby lessens the desirability and value of adjacent land, and the owners fail or refuse, when requested by the owner of adjacent land or when requested by the local governing body of the county, city or town wherein the private graveyard is located, to remedy such condition of neglect and put the graveyard into suitable condition, then any owner of adjacent land or the local governing body may file a bill in equity in the circuit court of the county or city wherein the graveyard is located, for the purpose of requiring the graveyard to be placed in a suitable condition. The owners of the graveyard or any person having a right therein shall be made defendants to such court proceedings.

The court shall not enter an order requiring the owners of a graveyard in which a grave or entombment right has never been sold to improve it or place it in a suitable condition. However, after hearing the evidence the court may allow the petitioners, at their own expense, to improve the graveyard and place it in suitable condition and may also require bond to ensure that the petitioners will not injure or remove any tomb, monument, gravestone, grave marker, or vault without having first obtained court approval. Acting pursuant to court order, the petitioners may thereafter enter upon the land and improve the graveyard and place it in suitable condition. The costs in any case involving a graveyard in which a grave or entombment right has never been sold shall be paid by the petitioners.

In any case involving a graveyard in which a grave or entombment right has been sold, the court shall determine whether the owners or petitioners shall pay the costs of improving the graveyard and may require bond to insure against injury or removal of any tomb, monument, gravestone, grave marker, or vault without court approval.

1950, p. 91; 1986, c. 55; 1990, c. 675.


A. If a person unlawfully disinters or displaces a dead human body, or any part of a dead human body which has been deposited in any vault, grave or other burial place, he is guilty of a Class 4 felony.

B. If a person willfully and intentionally physically defiles a dead human body he is guilty of a Class 6 felony. For the purposes of this section, the term “defile” shall not include any autopsy or the recovery of organs or tissues for transplantation, or any other lawful purpose.

Code 1950, § 18.1-243; 1960, c. 358; 1975, cc. 14, 15; 1995, c. 306.


A. Any person who willfully or maliciously commits any of the following acts is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor:

1. Destroys, removes, cuts, breaks, or injures any tree, shrub, or plant on any church property or within any cemetery or lot of any memorial or monumental association;

2. Destroys, mutilates, injures, or removes and carries away any flowers, wreaths, vases, or other ornaments placed within any church or on church property, or placed upon or around any grave, tomb, monument, or lot in any cemetery, graveyard, or other place of burial; or

3. Obstructs proper ingress to and egress from any church or any cemetery or lot belonging to any memorial or monumental association.

B. Any person who willfully or maliciously destroys, mutilates, defaces, injures, or removes any object or structure permanently attached or affixed within any church or on church property, any tomb, monument, gravestone, or other structure placed within any cemetery, graveyard, or place of burial, or within any lot belonging to any memorial or monumental association, or any fence, railing, or other work for the protection or ornament of any tomb, monument, gravestone, or other structure aforesaid, or of any cemetery lot within any cemetery is guilty of a Class 6 felony. A person convicted under this section who is required to pay restitution by the court shall be required to pay restitution to the church, if the property damaged is property of the church, or to the owner of a cemetery, if the property damaged is located within such cemetery regardless of whether the property damaged is owned by the cemetery or by another person.

C. This section shall not apply to any work which is done by the authorities of a church or congregation in the maintenance or improvement of any church property or any burial ground or cemetery belonging to it and under its management or control and which does not injure or result in the removal of a tomb, monument, gravestone, grave marker or vault. For purposes of this section, “church” shall mean any place of worship, and “church property” shall mean any educational building or community center owned or rented by a church.

Code 1950, § 18.1-244; 1960, c. 358; 1975, cc. 14, 15; 1982, c. 561; 1983, c. 579; 1990, c. 510; 2004, c. 203.

Source: Virginia Department of Historic Resources