We are creating this page to share what we have learned over the past 21 years of preserving Hillcrest Cemetery in East Point, Georgia, USA. At this point, it is just a stub of what I hope it will become—a clearinghouse of information to help other local residents, families and organizations create their own organizations. This is not part of the mission of HCMA, but a side project, created by founding member Kevin Hudson.
No information in this page should be construed as legal advice. While it includes links to other resources, including the law in Georgia and pages hosted by other organizations, much of it is opinion and stories from our experience. It is important to note that laws vary by state, and sometimes even locally. We recommend you consult with an attorney and/or organization in your state if you are located outside of Georgia.
What is an abandoned cemetery?
2021 Georgia Code Title 36 - Local Government Chapter 72 - Abandoned Cemeteries and Burial Grounds § 36-72-2. Definitions As used in this chapter, the term: "Abandoned cemetery" means a cemetery which shows signs of neglect including, without limitation, the unchecked growth of vegetation, repeated and unchecked acts of vandalism, or the disintegration of grave markers or boundaries and for which no person can be found who is legally responsible and financially capable of the upkeep of such cemetery. https://law.justia.com/codes/georgia/2021/title-36/chapter-72/
Shouldn't the city/county/state be taking care of the cemetery?
Local governments can, and sometimes do, as a matter of maintaining their community, but no reference in Georgia law requires any government to do anything about a cemetery that is not owned by that government. (Emphasis added below.) 2021 Georgia Code Title 36 - Local Government Chapter 72 - Abandoned Cemeteries and Burial Grounds § 36-72-3. Authority of Counties and Municipalities to Preserve Abandoned Cemeteries Counties, anywhere within the county boundaries, and municipalities, anywhere within the municipal boundaries, are authorized, jointly and severally, to preserve and protect any abandoned cemetery or any burial ground which the county or municipality determines has been abandoned or is not being maintained by the person who is legally responsible for its upkeep, whether or not that person is financially capable of doing so, to expend public money in connection therewith, to provide for reimbursement of such funds by billing any legally responsible person or levying upon any of his property as authorized by local ordinance, and to exercise the power of eminent domain to acquire any interest in land necessary for that purpose. https://law.justia.com/codes/georgia/2021/title-36/chapter-72/
Do I need to be a nonprofit/501(c)(3)?
It depends on your circumstances, but if you plan to create a long-term project/organization to take care of a cemetery, it is recommended. But it takes money to create one, so feel free to get started without it. It makes donations tax-deductible, and is required by some companies and cities/agencies that may want to partner with you. Here are some basics on doing this:
I should note here that HCMA is currently a 501(c)(13), not a (c)(3). This was an error by the IRS when we applies for (c)(3). They insisted we were a "Mutual Cemetery Company" and had to be a (c)(13). They were wrong, since we don't own the property, for one thing. But since it was done and donations were still tax deductible, we rolled with it. Jump to today and it is causing us some problems, from having to explain it all the time, to being locked out of corporate giving programs that strictly only support (c)(3) groups. This includes things like Facebook donations, discounts on credit card fees through PayPal and other online giving platforms, and more. We are going through a long process of re-filing for our 501(c)(3) now.
More to come later, but here are some quick links for now:
Find a Grave: Website that may already have listings of burials in your cemetery. This is a great online resource to help you with your project, as well as a place for you to add information without needing your own online database. A volunteer put a lot of our information online there years ago, but unfortunately shorthanded the location info in a confusing way. Instead of Section 7, Block B, Lot 19, Space 1, they simply put 7B191. It's still useful, but I would advise you to plan ahead if gathering information for this site.
Georgia Historic Preservation Division: This is the state office that can be of the most help to you, though there is little they can do other than advising you. The Frequently Asked Questions on their page is full of good information, including other links.
Hands on Atlanta: If you are located in the Atlanta area, this is a good resource for volunteers when you have a cleanup event, especially if few family/community members are around to help. You may get a team of high school or college students, or a corporate group, or even a few individuals. You will need to provide tools (see Toolbank link) and supervision of the project. (I have learned that I personally get little done myself, as all my effort is needed for answering questions, guiding their activities, etc. One way I get around this is I go out in advance and cut a lot of brush, letting it fall where it is, then the volunteers are tasked with moving the brush into piles where you need them, bagging trash and small brush, and maybe cutting a little more.) There is no fee for a basic membership with up to three events a year posted, and a small fee for more.
Atlanta Toolbank: This organization has a tool lending "library," including loppers, hand saws, buckets and other tools that are needed for cemetery cleanup projects. There is a small membership fee and a small fee per tool, but it's worth it. Note that you may need to pick up and return the tools on days other than your event day, due to their hours. For a Saturday event, picking up on Friday and returning Monday can be helpful and sometimes necessary.