Who do you turn to when grass isn’t being cut, or the grave marker falls over? Or, who can approve the transfer of the ownership of my mother’s grave space?

Ultimately, the answer depends on who owns the cemetery. But, determining who owns the cemetery can often prove confusing to both the public and the cemetery regulator.

A recent Manteca Bulletin article about the ‘friends’ of the East Union Cemetery would seem to be just another story about a pioneer cemetery that has no funds for care and maintenance. But a closer examination suggests a situation where concerned citizens signed on to serve on a cemetery association board without understanding the accompanying responsibilities.

East Union Cemetery is located in Manteca, California, a community of 50,000 that is located 80 miles east of San Francisco. As with most “public” cemeteries, East Union Cemetery is required by state law to file reports for authority to continue operations. But apparently, East Union Cemetery failed to file those reports a few years ago and the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau began to send out notices.   When no one responded, the state began to investigate, and issues of ownership, missing funds and accountability began to surface.

News reports indicate the cemetery had an endowment fund of $800,000 as recently as ten years ago. But then, one member was accused of embezzling funds and the cemetery association board membership dwindled down to two members.

With the state still conducting its investigation, Manteka’s citizens responded to the situation by forming a new and expanded cemetery association board. However, reports and regulator press releases suggest that the new board may have exceeded its authorities in the zeal to address the cemetery’s needs. Subsequent to the appointment of the new board, the state seized the cemetery’s remaining funds and submitted a proposed agreement to the cemetery association. Shocked by this turn of events, the new board resigned, and pointed a finger at the cemetery regulators. 

The facts suggest the cemetery association board did not appreciate the laws governing cemetery care funds. It may be that the new board followed a course of action that had transpired over the past ten years. Endowment care (or perpetual care) funds are intended to provide income to subsidize the cemetery’s maintenance expenses. Most states’ cemetery laws prohibit the fund fiduciary from invading principal to meet the cemetery’s needs.

The California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau is caught between a rock and a hard spot. Well-intended citizens stepped up to a situation that demanded attention, but acted without knowing the rules.   The Bureau’s press release and Q&A posting help tell its side of the situation.

Individuals who have an interest in serving on a cemetery association board need to appreciate the responsibilities that accompany that service.   Those responsibilities will be defined in part by the association articles and bylaws, applicable state cemetery laws and the agreements and documents that bind the association.   As witnessed by a lawsuit filed recently in Brooklyn, New York, those legal documents have life beyond the grave.