Human Burials, Mounds and Cemeteries and State Law
All burial sites in Wisconsin, no matter how old they are or who is buried in them, and no matter if they are marked or unmarked, are protected by State Law.
There are many kinds of burial sites in Wisconsin, from Native American mounds to Civil War cemeteries. Wisconsin's oldest burial sites date from the end of the last Ice Age, almost 10,000 years ago. The youngest are in use today.
Nowadays burial sites are rarely excavated. Instead, the focus has shifted to cataloging and preserving them.
Wisconsin's burial sites laws outline procedures that must be followed by people and agencies who own human burial sites, or who wish to work within the boundaries of human burial sites.
- Most importantly, it is illegal to dig into a burial site or to disturb mounds or burial markers without authorization to disturb a burial site from the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
- Private land owners who own human burial sites have certain rights and responsibilities. They must protect the burials on their land from disturbance. In return, they may be eligible for property tax exemptions.
- Local governments and agencies must also protect human burial sites on their properties. There are special rules that determine how and when municipalities can sell burial sites. Towns and municipalities may also be responsible for abandoned cemeteries within their jurisdictions.
Major Federal and State Laws
In the 1980s, in response to the tragic destruction of many of Wisconsin's historic burial sites, Wisconsin's legislature decided to take steps to extend equal protection to all human burial places. Provisions for protection were balanced with benefits such as tax exemptions for private property holders. Several Acts, Statutes, and Administrative Codes — collectively known as Wisconsin's burial sites laws — were the final result.
Below are the most recent versions of burial site laws.
1985 Wisconsin Act 316
The 1985 Wisconsin Act 316 (PDF, 448 KB) provides for:
- Legal protection for burial sites that do not look like modern cemeteries.
- Upholds the ideal that all human burial sites should be accorded equal treatment no matter how old they are or who created them.
Wis. Stats. 157.70
In 1987, provisions of 1985 Wisconsin Act 316 were written into law as Wis. Stats. 157.70 (PDF, 36 KB). This statute provides for:
- Property tax exemptions.
- Criminal and financial penalties for the intentional disturbance of burial sites.
- The respectful treatment of human remains in cases when burial sites are accidentally disturbed or discovered during by construction.
- The transfer of excavated human remains to appropriate parties for storage or reburial.
Two sets of Administrative Codes — Wisconsin Administrative Code HS 1.03 (PDF, 15 KB) and Administrative Code HS 2 (PDF, 42 KB) — clarify portions of Wis. Stats. 157.70.
- HS 1 describes the Registry of Interested Persons — a list of people and organizations who have expressed an interest in human burial sites. HS 1 establishes the rules used by the Burial Sites Preservation Board to decide who should be listed on the RIP. HS 1 also describes how people can appeal decisions to disturb or preserve a cataloged burial site.
- HS 2 defines many of the terms found in 157.70. HS 2 also clarifies the procedures that the Wisconsin Historical Society uses to identify, catalog, preserve, excavate, analyze, and transfer custody of human burials.
Federal or Tribal Burial Sites
Wisconsin's burial sites laws do not apply to Native American burial sites located on Federal or Tribal land. Those burial sites fall under the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
A separate section of Wisconsin statutes covers abandoned cemeteries. Wis. Stats. 157.115 (PDF, 165 KB) describes when and how abandoned cemeteries may be moved or transferred into public ownership.
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