Backyard (Front yard) Burial Plots

July 30, 2012

This week my attention was grabbed by this interesting headline from Thomson Reuters News and Insight: Alabama man fights to keep his wife buried in front yard. (WestlawNext: 7/20/12 Reuters News 16:42:38.) Apparently, Jim Davis was simply honoring his wife’s dying wishes to be buried on the land where they raised their five children.

If you have ever traversed the back-roads (particularly dirt or gravel roads) of your state, you have seen small family graveyards. Outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, it seems like they show up at a rate of 1 every 5 miles. I have family members in a few of them, but unlike Mr. Davis, my relatives have long worried about urban sprawl and my relatives haven’t been interred in small (less than 20 graves) cemeteries since the early 1900’s. Given the expansion of cities into farm country, I wondered what happens to these backyard (or front yard, in Mr. Davis’ case) family graveyards? What issues may arise (other than the ghosts of  dead relatives),  when selling farm ground or a homestead upon which a handful of family members have been interred?

Given all the possible legal issues and types of material that could be consulted, WestlawNext is my first stop. Distilling the key concepts from this broad topic, I ran this descriptive term search across all state and federal materials:

human remains and family burial plot

I tried a few variations, but this search is dead-on (pardon the pun). The first case on the list, Sanford v. Vinal, 552 N.E.2d 579, displays this case description:

Descendant of those buried on family burial plot brought action to protect plot from development.

The search also produces relevant statutes, regulations, secondary sources, and other documents. In secondary sources, I have several great American Law Report articles dealing multiple aspects of interment in family burial plots.   77 A.L.R. 4th 108, Liability for desecration of graves and tombstones, has sections dealing with disturbance and desecration of graves by various activities like,  excavation, development, and cultivation.  Another ALR deals with  Enforcement of preference expressed by decedent as to disposition of his body after death, 54 A.L.R.3d 1037.