Family Cemetery Plots

I just read the Alabama Supreme Court decision of Jakeman v. Lawrence Management Group. It came out in March of this year. There’s nothing earth shattering about the law. It’s just one of those cases that strikes you as an interesting story.  It involves rights to a family burial plot at a cemetery.

In 1967, Ben Jakeman bought a family burial plot with 10 spaces. The location was important because it was right next to plots owned by Ben’s mother, who was an O’Neal.  Burial in the plot was limited to Jakeman and O’Neal family members.

Unfortunately, the whole cemetery changed hands in 2002. Apparently the records were not as good as one might have hoped. The new owners sold 2 of the Jakeman spaces to the Jones, and Mr. Jones was promptly buried in one of them.  The Jakemans found out in 2006 and kicked up a fuss, forcing the cemetery to dig up poor Mr. Jones and move him some place else.

As luck would have it, they moved Mr. Jones to another one of the Jakeman spaces.  I don’t know about you guys, but if I bought a cemetery with bad record-keeping and found out I’d buried someone in a plot owned by someone else, I think I’d at least ask THAT person where all their spaces were.  Wouldn’t you say, “Gosh, Mr. Jakeman, I’m real sorry. Can you show me all your spaces, so I can correct my records?” That never occurred to anyone, apparently. Not wanting to subject the Mr. Jones to any long journeys, the cemetery apparently just eased him down the road a couple of spaces, but it wasn’t far enough to escape the boundaries of the “Jakeman City Limits.”

If you were a Jakeman, would you have checked to make sure Mr. Jones was truly “dearly departed” from your plot? Would you have dropped by regularly to make sure there weren’t any more surprises? Maybe we would, but the Jakemans did not.  Nobody knew Mr. Jones was still hanging around until 2008, when Ben Jakeman died and the family discovered Mr. Jones was one of those “house guests” who refuses to leave.

Ben’s son, Kenneth, was a  little miffed. He told the cemetery to get Mr. Jones out of there. The cemetery said, “We ain’t moving him again!”  Kenneth sued.  In the meantime, Kenneth’s brother Robert, who was the executor of their father’s estate, cut a deal with the cemetery. They paid the estate $4,000 and Robert sold all the plots back to the cemetery.  Problem solved, Mr. Jones didn’t need to  move.

Except, Kenneth said HE didn’t join in the sale, HE wasn’t going to agree to anything like that, HE wanted to be buried near his grandmother, in what was supposed to be the Jakeman family plot, and HE wanted Mr. Jones out of there.

The legal question was, if Ben Jakeman bought the family plot, could his executor unilaterally decide to sell the plot to someone else?  Or, if all the Jakemans were entitled to be buried there, did they all have to agree to sell the plot?

The court said the question of property rights to the plot, and who had to agree to the sale, was irrelevant. The contract between Ben Jakeman and the cemetery said Jakeman and O’Neal family members could be buried there. As a result of the CONTRACT, Robert Jakeman couldn’t just sell the plot and get rid of everyone else’s rights and claims.

I liked this case because I can just imagine all the family dynamics going on, with poor Mr. Jones caught in the cross fire. Truly, doesn’t this sound like something out of the tv show Dallas?  What if you were the Ewing family and the cemetery said, “We gotta dig up J.R. again and move him some more. The man hopped beds like crazy when he was alive, he’s not gonna mind hopping around a few burial plots.  Might even enjoy it.”  And then John Ross says, “If you dig up Daddy again I’m going to plant you right next to him. Do what you gotta do, I’m just telling you what happens afterwards.”  In the meantime, the Barnes are going ballistic about a Ewing buried smack in the middle of the Barnes family plot, and even after Cliff Barnes (allegedly) shot and killed J. R. Ewing, he STILL can’t get rid of the sorry so-and-so.

Really. If that were a plot line on Dallas, you’d say it was too incredible. Yet, it happens in real life all the time.  I was recently involved in helping a relative with a very similar situation.  Family cemetery plot, bad record keeping, sale of cemetery, wrong person buried in family plot, and then there’s a problem.  You think it’s bad to sit in someone else’s pew at church? Try burying someone in their family plot.  We got it resolved, and the body was moved some place else.  My point is–while this might seem like just an interesting story at first, I’m willing to bet you are going to see this issue come up during your lifetime. Or maybe afterwards….