On Sunday, Israel Defense Forces began relocating remains from a cemetery in the Gaza Strip. By the end of the week, 48 graves will be moved to new sites across the border. How do you move a cemetery?
In Israel, with coffins; in America, with boxes. The remains of the Gaza settlers were disinterred, placed in flag-draped coffins, and quickly transported to new burial sites. American grave-movers sometimes use plain wooden boxes, 2 feet long and 1 foot high, to store and carry whatever bone fragments and coffin parts they might dig up. (The original coffins often deteriorate in the ground.) Then they bury the boxes—one for each relocated grave—in a "perpetual-care cemetery" that vows to take care of each plot forever. The original headstones are either saved and placed above the new graves or buried alongside the boxes.
Cemetery relocations are not at all uncommon, since developers often need to clear out graveyards from valuable tracts of land. Procedures for doing so vary from state to state, but most places require some careful planning and historical study. If it's possible to determine the identities of those buried in the graveyard, the developer must make an earnest attempt to find out as much as he can about the site and contact descendents for permission to dig it up. The final authority to move a cemetery generally comes from a town or city council.
For older sites, or any cemetery of particular historical importance, the developer may be required to bring in a team of archaeologists. The team surveys the cemetery and uses ground-penetrating radar and soil tests to look for graves. (Old grave shafts can show up as discolorations of the earth one or two feet below the surface.) Then the archaeologists take pictures of the site and record the precise location and orientation of each gravestone.
When archaeologists dig up a grave, they use sculpting tools and brushes to identify each item they find and then box up the remains for study in the lab. Before the bodies are reinterred, the team writes up a technical report that describes everything they've discovered in the cemetery. In some cases, families and developers will decide to mimic the conditions of the original cemetery in a new location; for example, gravestones might be placed in the same relative positions, and original iron gates might be placed around the new site.
More recent graves might call for a coarser excavation. For a couple thousand dollars per body, a burial company will relocate a cemetery with a backhoe and shovels. They use the tractor to dig up the top few feet of earth above the graves and the shovels to extract the remains. They videotape the disinterment to record whatever items they find and then place those items in a wooden box.
Bonus Explainer: What happens when a cemetery gets flooded? Usually nothing. Water flows right over many older graves, but it can cause problems for fresh ones. In a flood, a recently buried vault might pop up through soil that's still moist and loose. In that case, the graves must be relocated when the flood is over—back to their original locations.
Explainer thanks Dianne Kay of Southern Illinois University, Alan Leveillee of PAL, and R. Ward Sutton of R. Ward Sutton Cemetery Services, and reader Scott de Brestian for asking the question.