Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Landowner's Rights and Responsibilities

For Properties with Human Burial Sites

Human burial sites: your rights and reponsibilities | Wisconsin Historical Society

As the owner of a human burial site, you have certain rights and responsibilities. You are also the caretaker of an irreplaceable piece of Wisconsin's heritage.

You Have a Right to Privacy

Burial site records are considered confidential and are not available for open records requests. Any information you provide about your burial site to the Society is confidential.

However, if construction is planned near your site, the parties involved may check to see if there are any human burial sites that may be disturbed. Information about your burial site may be made available to them. In most cases, such information requests are made to satisfy provisions of federal or state law regarding the protection of burial and archaeological sites.  If anyone is provided with information concerning your burial site they will be bound by confidentiality agreements. They will use the information only to avoid disturbing human burials.

You Decide How and When to Allow Public Access to Cemeteries or Burial Sites on Your Property

You are not required to allow public access to your burial site or cemetery.

It is possible that if you own a small private or family cemetery the relatives of the deceased will approach you. If you do decide to allow access to your cemetery, you may negotiate entry on the terms of your choosing.

Before you decide to deny access to the cemetery, check with your county's register of deeds to make sure that there are no easements granting public access to the cemetery. Also, make sure that you own clear title to the cemetery parcel itself. If you do not own the cemetery parcel you do not have the right to block access to the parcel, even if you have been maintaining it for many years.

You Are Eligible for a Property Tax Exemption

Under Wisconsin's burial sites law, the owners of cataloged burial sites are eligible for a property tax exemption.

Know Which Activities Are Permitted Within the Boundaries of a Burial Site

You may cut trees and continue to plant crops on previously-cultivated burial sites if you do not disturb human remains or move or damage burial markers, burial mounds, fences, or other surface indications of the burial site. You may also mow, hand-clear brush, clean burial markers, and make minor repairs.

If you are maintaining an active or recently active cemetery, you do not need a permit for normal grounds keeping, cemetery improvements, or the excavation of new graves.

In all other instances it is illegal to intentionally disturb human burial sites. This means that you are not allowed to dig into a human burial site, move grave markers, disturb burial mounds, or build within the boundaries of a burial site without authorization from the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Maintaining Human Burial Sites

There are no state laws addressing how human burial sites should be maintained, as long as the sites are not disturbed. However, burial sites that are well-maintained and marked are less likely to be disturbed by accident. If you want to maintain a cemetery or Native American mound group on your property, but need help, you may want to consider partnering with a local volunteer organization. Make sure that all volunteers are aware of the restrictions covering activities within human burial sites before they begin work.

Moving Human Remains

If you need to move human remains from a burial site you will be responsible for the costs involved in the excavation, analysis, and relocation of all burials and burial markers. You may obtain bids for excavation costs by contacting an archaeologist on the list of archaeologists qualified to work within human burial sites in Wisconsin.

Learn more about how and when to move human burials.

The Wisconsin Historical Society does not provide financial assistance to owners of burial sites.

Native American Mounds Have Same Protection As Cemeteries

Wisconsin state law classifies all Native American mounds as human burial sites and burial markers. They are given the same protection as cemeteries. Archaeological excavations have confirmed that all types of mounds, including effigy mounds, were used to hold or mark burials.

Learn More About the Burial Site on Your Property

Private landowners, realtors, or potential property buyers can request information about archaeological sites and burial sites present on a parcel. To obtain this confidential information, please complete this form and submit it to Amy Rosebrough via the email, fax, or mailing address listed below.

Amy L. Rosebrough
Wisconsin Historical Society
816 State Street 
Madison WI 53706-1482

Fax: 608-264-6504
Email: amy.rosebrough@wisconsinhistory.org

The Society will mail you copies of your records. If the Society doesn't have a record of the site, we may ask you to fill out a site report form. We might also ask permission for our staff to visit your property to document the site.

Learn More

See more articles about Human Burials, Mounds and Cemeteries

Have Questions?

Call Amy Rosebrough at 608-264-6494 or email her below.