Climate change impacting cemetery graves across United States
Thousands of graves in cemeteries across America have been damaged by floods, storm surges and erosion brought about by climate change.
Ryan Ross, USA TODAY
A delicate hand points heavenward on the carved headstone marking the grave of Sarah Ewen Stewart, “at rest” in her scenic island location on Florida’s Gulf Coast for more than 145 years.
The stone, tilted over time in the Cedar Key Cemetery, shows Sarah was born in 1809, at the dawn of the 19th century, when a flurry of inventions were about to launch the world’s industrial revolution. The first steam locomotive was patented in the U.S. the year she was born.
No one was talking about carbon dioxide or its role in warming the Earth’s atmosphere. And for much of Sarah’s life, carbon dioxide levels remained flat, historical reconstructions show.
But when she was laid to rest in 1878, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were already creeping higher and sea levels were rising. Scientists had begun to study the notion that carbon dioxide, together with water vapor, creates a greenhouse effect around the globe.
Just over a century later, John Kuszyna was buried in the same tree-shaded cemetery, in a world beginning to understand the growing effects of a century of spewing carbon dioxide emissions into the air. Across the nation from this tree-shaded spot, on the side of a volcano in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, a monitor showed CO2 had risen nearly 12% over his lifetime.
Today, Kuszyna’s daughter, Sue Colson, a Cedar Key city commissioner, knows climate change is coming for her parents. John and Clair Kuszyna rest side-by-side in a section of the cemetery most vulnerable to the rising sea levels. Colson planned it that way.
“My father was a big fan of the water all his life,” she said. “I knew he’d want to be in the water.”
Carbon dioxide levels have soared since her father was buried, increasing by around 27%, and it shows in the Gulf of Mexico’s encroachment into this tiny island community.
High tide flooding happens 4-7 times more often in the island community than it used to, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Already, sections of the cemetery go underwater during big tropical storms and hurricanes, and it’s only forecast to grow worse.
Like the cemetery in Cedar Key, dozens of graveyards in at least 21 states and 15 countries have seen increased flooding, erosion and other climate-related weather disasters over the past three decades. It’s in these graveyards, among the tombstones of Revolutionary War soldiers, enslaved and Indigenous ancestors, children gone too soon and countless others that the changing climate makes its presence felt with crushing reality.
Climate scientists the world over say higher greenhouse gas emissions are fueling warmer temperatures that drive wilder weather and higher sea levels.
Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, said Heather Kostick, a doctoral student in environmental science at Drexel University who studies cemeteries. “It’s probably one of the biggest risks for cemeteries across the board, not just older cemeteries, but newer ones too.”
It isn’t just “a scientific discussion of a few degrees one way or another,” said Michael Trinkley, director of the Chicora Foundation, a South Carolina-based group specializing in archaeological research and cemetery preservation. It’s “a matter of very real consequences.”
And it adds to a growing financial burden on governments and taxpayers that’s only forecast to grow worse, Trinkley said.
The havoc will continue to unfold in the future, and “few cemeteries will be exempt from its effects,” said Leslee Keys, a historic preservation consultant based in St. Augustine, Florida. All of this is happening at a time when the demand is increasing, she said. “The Baby Boomers are going to all be in that situation in the next few decades and nobody’s really prepared for the volume of potential graves to be dealt with.”
Key and others said it’s crucial for state and local governments to recognize the looming impacts, find and document the nation’s cemeteries and then include them in disaster response and recovery plans.
“We have an ethical obligation to the people who came before us,” said David Anderson, professor in the anthropology department at the University of Tennessee. “The question is how to move forward, doing the best for the most.”
Already millions have been spent to raise cemeteries, relocate graves, build new sea walls and stabilize shorelines. As climate change-related costs rise higher, experts say difficult and painful decisions lay ahead.
Double jeopardy: Warming permafrost, melting sea ice
Indigenous residents in one Alaska community know hard decisions are coming.
On a shrinking barrier island along the Bering Strait, the Inupiat village of Shishmaref – population 521 in 2021 – was built on frozen sandy soils, susceptible to significant erosion as the permafrost melts and the sea ice dwindles.
In 1997, a storm took 30 feet of shore, state reports show. The National Guard Armory and 15 homes were relocated, but erosion continues to sweep away an average of 3-5 feet of earth per year. The villagers voted to relocate in 2016, a plan is in motion, but a decision about its cemetery hasn’t been finalized.
The state of Louisiana, so far, has had little choice. The state is one of the first forced to reckon with climate change and its impacts on the dead.
‘Grieving all over again’
“Have you found them yet?”
Louisiana’s cemetery task force hears this question over and over in the weeks and months after extreme rains and powerful storm surges dislodge vaults and caskets.
Thousands of vaults and caskets have come loose or washed away during a relentless streak of hurricane landfalls and historic rains, exacerbated by the warming Gulf of Mexico over the past 20 years. A combination of sinking land and rising sea levels makes things worse.
Hurricane Katrina displaced hundreds of caskets in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 2005. After more vaults were dislodged during Ike in 2008, the state worked with federal officials to find and bury displaced coffins, said Ryan Seidemann, chairman of the state’s Cemetery Response Task Force.
By the time Hurricane Isaac disrupted more than 100 graves in 2012, and catastrophic flooding in 2016 damaged another 800 burial sites in 35 graveyards, the state was kind of on its own, Seidemann said.
The aftermath of the 2016 flood was “terrifying,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. It was just a daunting challenge to look at, and we did not have the infrastructure for it.”
By 2018, state legislators organized the task force to help oversee the influx of washed out burial sites and vaults. It was none too soon. The 2020 hurricane season brought Laura, Delta and Zeta, disrupting more than 3,000 graves from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arkansas state line.
After each storm, families call, hoping to hear caskets have been found and the remains of their loved ones identified, Seidemann said. They’re “grieving all over again, and it’s awful.”
When the answer is no, sometimes there’s anger, said Seidemann, an assistant attorney general. “We tell them, ‘look, the worst thing we could do is give you the wrong person back.’”
The final reburial from the 2016 flooding was just completed earlier this year. Now, Seidemann said, he’s starting to field calls from other states, who find themselves in similar circumstances.
‘You can’t manage what you don’t know‘
Climate change and rising sea levels only add to the troubles for lost or aging cemeteries in disrepair.
Even as historic preservation experts plead for communities to do more to include cemeteries in their climate resilience and disaster planning, it’s more difficult than it sounds because far too many cemeteries remain unidentified and unmapped, said Sarah Miller, director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network’s northeast and central regions.
That’s despite networks of genealogy volunteers working nationwide to find and document cemeteries and grave sites.
“We are a country riddled with data gaps when it comes to cemeteries,” Miller said. “You can’t manage what you don’t know.”
Cemeteries remain unidentified for several reasons. They may be lost or abandoned, hidden away on private land where people were once allowed to bury family members at home, tucked into woods, lowlands or areas otherwise off the beaten path or hidden by previous natural events.
The Florida archaeology network works to find and document burial sites. By some estimates, thousands of graves may not be accounted for. While Florida has a system for finding and reporting lost or abandoned graveyards, Miller said many states do not.
Preserving cultural heritage
Graves of Black and Indigenous people are of even greater concern in the quest for lost or unidentified grave sites, said Trinkley and others. They often have no head stones and may be buried in shallow graves or marginalized locations that make them more vulnerable to flooding and storm surge.
”State and local planners have a responsibility to incorporate these sites into their conversations and plans,” said Jennifer Blanks, a doctoral candidate at Texas A & M University who studies cemeteries. The nation has a history of looking the other way, she said, and not prioritizing socially vulnerable populations or their historic resources, especially cemeteries.
Earlier this year, Congress approved the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act, after years of effort by Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and others. It establishes a National Park Service program to provide competitive grants and assistance to help organizations research, identify and preserve cemeteries.
Blanks urges volunteers and enthusiasts to get involved in crowd-sourcing information, using the Find A Grave website to create profiles and map cemeteries, reaching out to churches, city and county offices and Facebook groups. Documenting cemeteries not only helps lay the groundwork for protection, but it makes it harder to erase the cultural heritage of a community, Blanks said. “Knowing where they are and mapping them is the first step.”
As local governments and cemetery associations try to shore up cemeteries against rising tides and extreme rains, they’ve taken a variety of approaches.
Seawalls were added in a Boston cemetery. Shorelines were stabilized in cemeteries on the East Coast. In some cases, local officials acknowledged the projects might only buy the cemetery another 30 years, depending on the rate of sea level rise.
Rough seas and heavy storms such as Hurricane Sandy heavily eroded islands in Boston Harbor, including one island where hundreds were buried throughout history, many of them immigrants quarantined with smallpox and other diseases, said Allen Gontz, a professor of applied geology at Clarkson University.
“They were starting to notice wooden boxes coming out of the bluff on the edge of the beach,” Gontz said. Some coffins were lost to the sea. Eventually, the shoreline was stabilized, and the remains in a few dozen graves were removed and re-interred in a cemetery on the mainland, he said.
Relocating graves to save them from erosion or rising water is “a very traumatic experience” for living family members, even when it’s done with sensitivity in an archaeological manner, Trinkley said. And “moving a grave” isn’t always defined the same.
To some, the technical definition of relocating a grave means moving at least one square foot of dirt, Miller said. To an archaeologist, it means being aware of each fragment in the soil, bits of bone, coffin hardware and other remnants as small as a collar stay in a dress shirt. Miller said it’s also evaluating how surrounding graves may be related and the cultural and historical significance of offerings left by mourning family and friends.
Such items show how they were processing death, Miller said. Historical research at the Freedman’s Cemetery in Dallas found hundreds of items, including dishes, bottles and containers left with the graves.
Depending on local rules, Trinkley said the per-grave price of such relocations ranges as high as $8,000 to $10,000.
The costly challenges facing cemeteries are “incomprehensible to people,” he said. The financial burden of climate change in general, he said, “is so great that no governments really want to acknowledge or attempt to deal with this cemetery issue.”
State and local governments are going to be wrestling with spending millions to shore up or move schools, fire stations and other public facilities, he said, and may be forced to face a grim reality that some things just can’t be saved.
Communities need to be working now to make difficult decisions, before the impacts grow even worse, Gontz said. Family members, communities and cemetery owners should be studying updated flood maps to understand the vulnerabilities and avoid traumatic choices, he said, especially in areas subject to erosion from heavy rain and swollen waterways.
“That’s the type of thing we should be doing at cemeteries all across the nation and frankly, across the world in trying to understand the threats to that location,” he said. “If we understand the threats to the environment, we can do a much better job of managing and mitigating some of the circumstances.”
Kostick said people will need to be convinced that cemeteries have value, and are worth the investment to save them, for the living and the dead. She said planners are increasingly finding cemeteries have value as green space for people and pockets of diversity for plants and wildlife, such as migrating birds, in urban landscapes.
In Cedar Key, the city is working toward resiliency, protecting the environment while focusing on the needs of the living – roads, utilities, access, bridges and culverts, Colson said. The city was just south of Hurricane Idalia’s landfall this summer and took a devastating storm surge of 8 feet or more.
Colson wonders if people burying their family members in the local cemetery realize that one day it could be permanently underwater.
“When we sell plots, people assume it’s going to be forever,” she said. “What are you going to do if your whole family has been there for 100 years?”
”We’ve got to save the culture of family and the fabric of life,” she said, “but people can’t have the government save them from this because of their personal beliefs.”
If families aren’t OK with the remains of their loved ones being underwater “your family needs to be planning now,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s the government’s responsibility. We can only plan so much.”
As a former Hospice nurse, Colson knows she thinks differently about death than many people.
She plans to be buried as a piece of artificial reef, she said. “I want to know that the oysters are growing on me and the fish are swimming around me.”
How can you help?
If you know of a grave or cemetery that may be abandoned or unidentified, here are steps you can take:
- Contact local officials.
- Check FindAGrave.com to see if a profile has been created for the cemetery.
- Talk to a nearby church or local genealogical society to see if they\’re aware of the cemetery.
- Report bones or open caskets to law enforcement, who will reach out to archaeological experts.
Read more about individual cemeteries: