Recently, while on a short vacation, I happened to pass a rather large cemetery with a rather large Mausoleum. Out of curiosity, I decided to drive through the cemetery to see some of the older stones and the rather large Mausoleum. As I suspected, the large Mausoleum was the burial place of Ty Cobb. It sits on a large private plot in the middle of the Cemetery. On the Mausoleum were mementos left by others: a couple of baseballs, an old bat and a beautiful wreath.
A gentleman that was doing some of the lawn maintenance paused, looked over at me for what seemed like forever before he tipped his hat my way and went about his lawn work. I was struck the gesture of silence and the hard stare upon me. It made me pause more than usual and think about why this guy would stare so long. I'm a middle aged woman dressed decently but not fancy and had a camera in my hands. My vehicle wasn't beat up, dirty or old. I did not take anything else out of my car except myself and my camera. I even left my purse in the passenger seat. So, I just had to have a conversation with this gentleman so he knew I wasn't there to harm any of the stones.
Turns out, this gentleman was a really nice local guy who takes meticulous care of the cemetery grounds as part of his personally owned lawn care business. Ty Cobb is a big deal is this small town of Royston, GA. The tiny museum helps bring tourists into the town and feed the economy. The entire town is protective of anything and everything Ty Cobb related including his resting place. This guy just wanted to make sure that I wasn't going to remove the wreath or baseballs. Not that he thought I would steal them but perhaps move them for photos and forget to put them back. Instantly, I totally understood his concern.
Legal or Not Legal?
This encounter got me thinking about the legality of visiting cemeteries and taking photos. Most of my photos are taken from hidden and obscure family (i.e. My Ancestor's) cemeteries. In West Virginia where I do most of my work, family cemeteries are scattered on what were large family farms but have since been sold and subdivided. A lot of these old family cemeteries are hidden in the back woods that were allowed to be overgrown. The current owners leave the family cemeteries alone and probably prefer for them to be forgotten. Some owners are agreeable to others visiting and photographing but a lot are not.
I do try to get permission from the property owner before walking their land. I've found some of my family cemeteries actually have an easement or access road and that makes them public property. So, if it's public property that should mean that anyone (i.e. the public) has free access. Not necessarily true! You could still be illegally trespassing.
Property Laws, Federal Laws and State Laws
Here's the breakdown.... private (as in my family cemeteries or Church Cemeteries) and public (as in Arlington National Cemetery) have rights: Property Rights. This can get tricky because you also need to check the State Cemetery Laws. Each cemetery can also have their own specific RULES. These rules can govern access, photographic equipment (Arlington is notorious to limit the type of equipment) and cleaning of tombstones.
In my opinion, West Virginia has some of the most lenient Cemetery Laws in the Country. They allow public access on private land even if there is not an access road. I feel that West Virginia's laws are specifically because they know so many families would simply bury their loved ones on their own property... and that few, these days, have large tracts of land that they can easily govern.
Read their specifics here: http://www.wvlegislature.gov/wvcode/chapterentire.cfm?chap=37&art=13A§ion=1
Something else I wanted to mention is that
Clear as Mud?
Although, I did not clearly answer the question of if it is legal or not to visit and photograph a cemetery, it is because there is not one standard law that spells the law and rules out. Each Cemetery can have it's own by-laws and rules as well as each State. National Cemeteries are governed by the Federal Govt, Military and National Parks. AND this is just in the United States!
Laws outside of the USA are vastly varied. One notorious cemetery in England, Brookwood, requires you to register at the office AND pay a fee as a photographer. They actively search the internet, Facebook, Find A Grave, Ancestry and other forums/personal sites for photos of their cemetery. Since it is privately owned, they have the right to charge... and to email you asking to remove your photos asap.
In a nutshell, for a large cemetery, check the "Rules" signage that is almost always at the entrance. For National Cemeteries, know that very basic cameras are probably allowed but it's best to check with the main offices located at the Cemetery. For City Cemeteries, again, check the Rules signage but note that a lot of cities are growing weary of constant photographers for Find A Grave, Ancestry and other websites. Although most photographers are kind and leave no trace, there are those that consider it a competition and will remove items (flowers, trinkets, coins, etc) from tombstones and not replace them. In my opinion, they should never be removed in the first place.
Kindness above all is always the best approach. Even though you might walk a cemetery without ever seeing a living soul, in my mind, there are still souls there that appreciate your kindness as well as your carefulness. Be respectful.
Professional Genealogist. You can usually find me searching through dusty piles of papers, photographing tombstones of Ancestors and drinking lattes. Research is my life. Living in an Airstream at the Beach is my Dream.