Can you bury someone in your front yard?

October 25th, 2013

In the small town of Stevenson, Alabama, there is no law prohibiting it. So James Davis honored his wife’s dying wish, and buried her in his front yard. Even though there is no law against it, the City has tried to dissuade him:

But ever since Mr. Davis granted his dying wife’s wish by laying her to rest just off his front porch, he and the City of Stevenson have been at odds. From City Hall to the courts, the government of this little railroad town in southern Appalachia has tried to convince Mr. Davis that a person who lives in a town cannot just set up a cemetery anywhere he likes. On Oct. 11, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed a judge’s decision saying as much.

But Mr. Davis, 74, is not inclined to back down.

“They’re waiting on me to die,” he said early last week, standing on the porch of the log house he built and looking out over his lawn, which along with the grave features an outhouse and a large sign demanding that his wife be allowed to rest in peace. “I am not digging her up.”

Alabama, like most states, has no state law against burying someone on private property, and family graves are not all that rare in the country. … Stevenson does not have such an ordinance, though Joshua Slocum, the director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog group based in Vermont, said this was not atypical.

So if there is no law against it, what’s the problem? The city denied the application because it may “impact” property values (isn’t that always the reason?)

Shortly before her death, Mr. Davis said, she expressed her wish to be buried in the yard of the house where they had spent three decades together. So he went to work, getting approval from the county’s Health Department and pressing the City Council for a permit.

The Council told Mr. Davis that he had not completed the necessary paperwork, and after two meetings, it voted to deny his request, speaking about its potential impact on property values and about who would take care of it in perpetuity. (The tombstone has Mr. Davis’s name beside his wife’s, and he planned to end up in the yard as well.) Parker Edmiston, the city attorney, said he was concerned about setting a precedent.

And, he ignored that vote, and just dug it himself.

According to court filings, Mr. Davis declared to the City Council members that he would sue and take his case to the State Supreme Court if necessary. But instead, he just decided to ignore them.

“I just got a backhoe and went ahead,” Mr. Davis said, later arguing that the lack of a specific burial ordinance meant that they had no right to stop him. He installed a vault, the funeral home put his wife in the coffin, and on a Saturday morning 10 days after the City Council vote, Mrs. Davis was laid to rest before a gathering of family members.

The city sued him a month later.

And what will the compromise be? Cremation.

On Friday, Mr. Davis was back in court, and while he warned of “an incident” if the city came onto his property, he suggested a compromise: he would dig up the coffin, cremate his wife’s remains and put the urn with her ashes back in the grave. In her dying days, Mrs. Davis had said she was afraid of cremation, Mr. Davis said. But a lot of time has passed since then. “If she saw herself as she is now, I know she would not mind,” he said.

Mr. Edmiston acknowledged that there was no law against tombstones or the placement of ashes, but he insisted that the coffin and the vault be removed. So if Mr. Davis fully complies with the city’s order, the yard will end up looking exactly as it does now, only with an urn rather than a coffin underneath.

This may raise the question as to what the whole fight was about. But Mr. Davis has no doubts.

“There was never any couple in love like us,” he said. “We was meant to be together.”