Church Graveyards

Most younger churches and non-ecumenical churches do not have graveyards.  For those churches that do have them, generally no one ever contemplated that the church owner would no longer be in existence to care for them or that the church property would be sold.

In Church of the Holy Spirt of Maryland v Heinrich, Slip Op. (Mass. App. 2022), the church was formed in 1961 and in 1967 decided it needed its own graveyard restricted to cremated remains.  In 2015, the church dwindled in size such that the denomination decided to wind down its activities and sell the property.  The property was sold to a church that doctrinally did not permit cremation.  Therefore, the new owner wanted the graveyard moved elsewhere.  The contracts and organizational documents of the graveyard did not contemplate closure of the church or sale of the land.  Those documents did contemplate that the church could unilaterally alter the regulations governing the graveyard.  The trial court held that the revised regulations of the graveyard which allowed transplantation of the graveyard were enforceable.  The appellate court reversed the trial court holding that the contemplated change in regulations was not contemplated when the burial contracts were purchased.  The religious beliefs of the new owner did not override the burial plot purchase contracts because the purchaser bought the property with full knowledge of the presence of the graveyard.  The appellate court would not speculate about any religious beliefs the burial contract purchasers might have had.  The desire to be buried in hallowed church property might have driven the original purchase of burial plots, or not, but might no longer be fulfilled because the purchase contracts did not expressly bind the church to own the property in perpetuity or remain in existence.  Because the ruling of the appellate court left unanswered questions about what would happen to the graveyard in the absence of the church that founded it, the case was remanded.

While the legal tangle of church graveyards may seem remote to most readers, denominations faced with declining local church membership the problem may arise more often.  Churches buying older church properties need to investigate any church graveyard and carefully determine if a permanent trust fund exists to care for the graveyard.  Further, if inexorable inflation forces additional funds to be deposited in a trust to keep it solvent, or if its investments are merely badly managed, then the buyer needs to know upon whom the burden falls if the trust fails.  Churches with an eternal view cannot afford to short term in their financial thinking.

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