Vermont Supreme Court rules for landowner in dispute over disinterment of a family cemetery

If only property law could have been taught in the context of cemetery land disputes, or taught in cemeteries . . .

The Vermont Supreme Court on Friday cleared the way for a Hartland landowner to move a cemetery of more than 150 years, over the objections of the family of two former owners of the property whose ashes were buried there in 1983.  In reversing a lower court, the justices said Jerome King of Hanover, N.H., and his family do not have rights to keep his parents’ cremated remains buried in a plot on land now owned by telephone executive Michel Guite.

Here’s what went down —

A family named the Aldriches created a burial ground in the 19th century on part of a 100-acre  plot of land.  When the Aldrich descendants sold the land in 1853, they carved out an exception for the burial site.   And according to the Vermont Supreme Court, the Aldrich heirs still maintain ownership of the tiny burial plot ever since, even though the the surrounding land has changed hands a number of times.

In the 1950s, Robert W. and Dorothy B. King bought the property.  When they died in the 1970s their cremains were buried in the graveyard on the property.

The location of the graveyard is on a hilltop near where Guite, the current owner of the land, would like to build a house.  Guite wanted to move the graveyard to a corner on the Property, a place that the descendants of those buried there could easily access it.  Jerome King, however, objected to his parents’ cremains being moved.

The Vermont Supreme Court summed up the legal issue as follows —

[W]hether the 1853 deed created a “fee simple” provision maintaining outright ownership of the burial plot with the Aldrich descendants, or whether it was an “easement,” extending broader rights to subsequent property owners to use the plot as a burial ground.

The Vermont Supreme Court reversed the lower court and held that the Aldrich descendants had maintained exclusive rights to the burial plot and the King family “had no right to bury the cremated remains in it.”  The effect of this ruling was that the decision as to whether the graveyard could be moved was up to “Marcia Neal of Grand Junction, Colo., a retired teacher and vice chair of the Colorado State Board of Education and great, great, great, great granddaughter of Lydia Aldrich.”

As the story goes, Guite and Ms. Neal met and Ms. Neal decided to let him move the cemetery.  Guite , coincidentally, decided to give Ms. Neal a contribution to her campaign for reelection to the state Board of Education.   But Ms.  Neal denied any connection to her decision to allow him to move the burial ground.

Maybe this case would have been more interesting if the remains at issue were corpses and not cremains.  Either way, it seems that the Vermont Supreme Court got this one right.  But see, Poltergeist (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1982).

Bonus video:

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~ by siouxsielaw on June 12, 2011.

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