Earlier this year, the dispute between a Missouri cemetery and an independent monument dealer made local news. The cemetery had given notice to several lot owners that memorial benches they had placed on graves were going to be removed. While the cemetery was permitting certain types of benches to remain, other benches proved difficult for maintenance workers to mow around. An independent monument dealer suggested to the news reporters that the cemetery did not have a right to go on to someone else’s piece of property and remove something that belongs to that person. Based on his comments, the monument dealer may not understand the property rights of grave space owners.
American property rights are based on an assumption that when you purchase a piece of real estate, you acquire all rights regarding the use of that land. This is inherent to the deeds we use to convey real estate. Originally, cemeteries also used deeds to convey fee simple rights in the grave spaces sold to individuals. However, that began to change several decades ago when cemeteries began to convey limited rights in a grave space. Those rights were defined as a limited interest of burying the single remains of a human body. Some cemeteries even changed the name of the instrument from a deed to an assignment. While some cemeteries retained the title “deed”, they altered the operative language to limit what rights the grave space owner acquired.
Cemeteries also condition the grave space owner’s rights to rules and regulations, that can be similar to what are imposed by homeowners’ association. The cemetery would permit monuments and decorations subject to rules that could be amended from time to time.
The Blue Springs cemetery dispute may be one that more cemeteries, lot owners and monument dealers encounter. As lot owners become more accepting of cremation, they will look at using their grave space for purposes of a cremation bench or niche monument. The cemetery’s rules and regulations contemplate a traditional burial garden that has easier maintenance requirements. The monument dealer and cemetery may have to work out accommodations to retain their clientele.