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Tennessee State Burial Site Statutes

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Tennessee has two state laws that offer protection against intentional disturbance of burial sites and human remains. State statutes also provide a procedure for legally disinterring human remains in certain circumstances.

The Desecration of a Venerated Object statute, TCA 39-17-311 (see below), states that a person who intentionally desecrates a place of burial commits a Class A misdemeanor. This law prohibits the physical abuse of a burial site, such as defacing a tombstone or damaging a grave in some manner. A person caught in the act of digging in a grave site, before actually disturbing the remains, could be charged with this offense.

The Abuse of Corpse statute, TCA 39-17-312 {see below), states that the physical mistreatment of a corpse, the disinterment of a corpse, or the unlawful disposal of a corpse is a Class E felony. This law applies to physical abuse of human remains, either before or after they have been buried, digging up human remains that have been buried, or to disposing of human remains without a proper burial or cremation. A person caught in the act of digging a grave after having actually disturbed the remains could be charged with this offense. A person possessing human remains and physically damaging them, such as by using them as craft material, would be in violation of the law. A person who buried human remains illegally, or threw them in a river or a trash dumpster, would also be committing this offense.

Although TCA 39-17-312 prohibits the disinterment of a corpse that has been buried, the Termination of Cemetery statutes, TCA 46-4-101 through TCA 46-4-104, provide a procedure for legally disinterring grave sites. According to A landowner having property containing a burial ground can receive permission from the Chancery Court to move the graves if it can be shown that any one of the following three conditions exist:

  1. The burial ground is abandoned
  2. The burial ground is neglected
  3. The existence of conditions that render the burial site improper as a resting place for the dead

If any one of these conditions are established the Chancery Court can terminate the rights of any person that may have rights in the burial ground and grant the property owner permission to move the graves and rebury them elsewhere.

Termination procedures have to be followed for any human burial, including those of prehistoric Native Americans. Even when burial sites are unmarked or unknown and discovered during the course of construction activities, the termination of cemetery process must be followed in order to legally move the graves.

Complete Text of Desecration of A Venerated Object Statute (TCA 39-17-311)

39-17-311. Desecration of venerated object. - (a) A person commits an offense who intentionally desecrates:

  1. A place of worship or burial.
  2. A state or national flag.

(b) A violation of this section is a Class A misdemeanor. [Acts 1989, ch. 591, 1.]

Cross References. Penalty for Class Amisdemeanor, 40-35-111.

Complete Text of Abuse of Corpse Statute (TCA 39-17-312)

39-17-312. Abuse of corpse. - (a) A person commits an offense who, without legal privilege, knowingly:

  1. Physically mistreats a corpse in a manner offensive to the sensibilities of an ordinary person;
  2. Disinters a corpse that has been buried or otherwise interred; or
  3. Disposes of a corpse in a manner known to be in violation of law.

(b) A violation of this section is a Class E felony. [Acts 1989, ch. 591, 1.]

Cross References. Penalty for Class E felony, 40-35-111.

Complete Text of Termination of Cemetery Statutes (TCA 46-4-101 et seq.) at
Tennessee Archaeology Network


Federal Laws Federal Agencies Tennessee Laws State Agencies
American Indian Religious Freedom Act Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Archaeology Statues Division of Archaeology
Archaeological Resources Protection Act National Park Service Burial Statues Historical Commission
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act U.S. Forest Service Sacred Sites Policy Review Heritage Conservation Trust Fund
National Historic Preservation Act

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Preserving Native American Historic Sites