Let’s talk about cemetery for a few minutes. This isn’t going to be a post about how fabulous green burial is. This is practical, traditional cemetery education here. I helped a family today that has cemetery property at one of our local Seattle cemeteries, and they were having challenges with the cemetery. The father was in the niche (a space for an urn) and the family wanted to remove him and scatter him with the recently deceased mother. Mom had put him in the niche and had left instructions with her daughter to take him out when she died. The daughter was the only remaining family member and wanted to get dad out of there to honor mom’s wishes. Unfortunately for this family, these wishes will not be accomplished with the ease and simplicity that they thought it would. The cemetery isn’t going to let them take him out without court intervention.
“That’s crazy!” you say. “Just another cemetery trying to rape the client at the most difficult time!!” you scream.
“Watching isn’t helping guys! Go get the backhoe!”
Nope. It’s not. Normally I’m here to hold the mirror up to the funeral & cemetery industry to show them how ridiculous they look, however here is where I’m going to actually part ways with the public at large and defend the cemetery for a fleeting moment.
This well intentioned, if naïve, notion would have worked or could have been avoided with a little research before hand and a little kindly counsel about how cemetery ownership works. There are three principles of cemeteries that need to be understood before you can really get the whole picture. They are: It’s the Wild West, you don’t own property, and it is a final resting place. Let’s start with the cowboys.
1. Cemeteries are the Wild West: Private cemeteries are self governed. The statutory laws that govern cemeteries are few. If you read the laws in Washington State – a real page turner – they primarily govern the management of funds for the pre-sale of cemetery spaces and the finances for the long term care of the cemetery, called “endowment”. Beyond that, it really only addresses the systematic transfer of the property. Everything else pretty much falls into the “You own it, you manage it” school of legislation. Speaking of owning it…
2. You don’t own property. “Oh the hell I don’t! I have a deed RIGHT HERE!” Yup, you have a “warrantee deed of interment rights”. You don’t own any real property at all. If you did, your family would have been paying property tax to the state this whole time. The deed you have boils down to this: you have the right to place (inter) one set of human remains in a specific place in the cemetery. That’s it. You don’t get to put anything on that grave, you don’t get to plant trees, you don’t get to put up a bird feeder, and you can’t throw a party and have a barbecue on it. If it’s a niche, you don’t get to put stickers on it, glue pictures to it, or leave whatever the hell crazy crocheted flowers you think are adorable on it. It is not your property.
3. It is a final resting place. When you sign the paperwork that you are going to put your loved one in that space, you are signing a contract with that cemetery that you want them to have your dead person in a space on their property. Part of that contract is that you are putting that person in the space – for eternity. It is not called a “temporary resting place” it has been called a “final resting place” for a reason. That contract has two sides – you say that you aren’t going to take them out; they say that they aren’t going to move them like a shell game. Everyone wins.
This brings us to the whole purpose of this post: the idea that taking people out of their spaces is reasonable. When you place a person in a cemetery, it is called an “interment” when you take them out, it’s called a “disinterment” (you cemetery geeks, forgive the lack of ‘entombment’ ‘inurnment’). The act of disinterring is reserved almost exclusively these days to cremations. Very few disinterments happen with casketed remains. An industry term for cremation or burial is “disposition” If someone says “what’s their disposition” in the funeral industry, “sunny” isn’t the answer they are seeking. Cremation, as a disposition, makes the movement, handling, and services quite easy. Some would say a little too easy. Not many people would take grandma and do a full body burial in a cemetery and come back five years later when grampa dies and say “Dig her up. We’re going to put them in burlap sacks and dump them in Puget Sound. That’s what they wanted.” That sounds absolutely absurd, doesn’t it? But, that’s what you’re doing when you want to take grandma out of the niche. It is, in fact, her mortal remains. That is her entire skeleton crunched down to fit in an urn, not some symbolic pixie dust that we want to represent her. That deed that you have doesn’t distinguish between the dispositions of cremation or burial.
“I’m gonna bring a keg ’cause its the family estate!”
So, when a family member comes to a cemetery and has some documentation stating that they have some legal right as next-of-kin to pull an ancestor out of a niche, it is not in the interest of a cemetery to comply with a wish that runs contrary to the expressed and authorized wishes of the deceased themselves that they have in a file cabinet in back.