The Vultures are Coming—Air Burials in Indiana?

In Lafayette, Indiana, Illa Solomon lived with the corpse of her 88-year-old husband, Gerald “Scooter” Gavan for nine months without reporting the death. Her aim was to fulfill her husband’s request for an air burial. This supposedly coveted air burial is an ancient practice of Tibetan Buddhists where birds slowly devour a corpse.

In February 2013, Solomon purchased the house next door to her house. Though Solomon claimed Gavan helped her renovate the house through the winter months, the coroner found Gavan was actually dead since summer. Solomon initially claimed her husband had been dead only five days before officers found the severely decomposed corpse, but eventually Gavan confessed the body had been decaying for nine months. She even admitted the smell of the decomposing body was so bad she could no longer live in her home with it. Hence, she bought the neighboring house and would sleep next door after returning each night to open the side door in hopes that birds would fly in and feed on her husband. When explaining her decision, Solomon stated, “That's kind of a little thing, isn't it? Keep a secret and open the door?" She said, "All he wanted me to do was just keep his secret and open the door.”

Solomon was, at the time of her husband’s death, unaware Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center studies scavenger birds, like vultures, as they feed on donated human bodies. She now says it is her goal to get her late husband’s remains to the Texas body farm. She explained, “I do hope that if somebody else gets put in the same situation I got put into, they'll know about the body farm and the body ranch, so they'll know where to go.”

Of course, in failing to report her husband’s death to authorities, Solomon violated state law. In Indiana, it is a misdemeanor to fail to report a dead body and a misdemeanor for the unlawful disposal of a dead body. Solomon’s defense was, “I know I did commit failure to report and that is a crime. I don't know if they'll charge me with failure to report or not.” In the end, Solomon’s lack of knowledge about the law did not save her. She pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of failing to report a dead body and unlawful disposal.

If Solomon was truly unaware of her legal obligation to report her husband’s death, it seems unfortunate she was punished for her lack of awareness. Additionally, her explanation that she was only doing something small to carry out the wishes of her husband suggests the law may be too restrictive. Why shouldn’t Gavan be able to devote his body to an air burial, especially if his wife was willing to give up their entire home during the process? It appears the only burden the air burial created was the burden on Solomon.

Interestingly, upon investigation into potential foul play on Solomon’s part, she produced her husband’s last will and testament. The document stated that Gavan, an 88-year-old WWII veteran, wanted a “traditional burial.” Solomon claimed this document and the phrase “traditional burial” tipped her off that her late husband wanted the air burial. She specifically alleged the documents show that her husband wanted to be eaten by birds in India. Solomon’s dogged interpretation of Gavan’s wishes seems to have something missing. Was she mentally addled by her husband’s passing? Was she engaged in foul play? Or did Solomon really just misinterpret her husband’s will the way he wanted? So perhaps Indiana’s law for reporting human passing is the best way to avoid such questions.

Katie Ott


"Mom and Dad went to Grandma's funeral and all I got was this t-shirt"

"Mom and dad went to grandma's funeral today and all they brought me back was this T-shirt."  Just the thing people want to see as they look around a funeral home.  At least that's what City of Oaks Funeral Home and Cremations hopes.  City of Oaks sells shirts emblazoned with that morbid spin on the classic trope along with other novelty gifts, from hearse Christmas ornaments and autopsy board games to coffin wine holders and "death mints."

Showing levity or anything short of somber attention at a funeral has traditionally been fodder for shock value in comedy or to express disassociation with the moment.  But while most continue to see funerals as a somber occasion, some cultures have found humor and joy in the midst of the passing of a loved one.  Perhaps the most famous example is the rich tradition of jazz funerals in New Orleans.  What started as a precursor to modern burial insurance has transitioned into one of the most distinctive pieces of Americana.  The practice of playing joyful music during times of mourning has been a staple of life and death in New Orleans since the early eighteenth century.

In central and southern Mexico, celebration of the dead centers on November 1st and 2nd: Dia de Los Muertos.  The Day of the Dead celebrates the belief that the gates of Heaven are opened on October 31 and allow the spirits of the dead to visit their loved ones for 24 hours.  Fanciful costumes and culinary delights herald the spirits' arrival.

While Edward Kosmos does not quite go to these extremes at City of Oaks, he hopes that his gift shop gives people five or ten minutes free of grief in a season of life that often feels unbearable.  While he admits that the effort falls flat when the person lying in state died too young, he says that most people smile.  He hopes that brief glimmer of mirth helps people to see that they can get through it.

Blaydes Moore


Preneed Services in Virginia: Where Should the Money Go?

A woman in Richmond, Virginia prepaid over $6,600 for preneed funeral services, which were to include the visitation, chapel, limo, and her burial plot. In a very unfortunate turn of events, the funeral home went out of business when the owner passed away without a designated licensee. More unfortunately, the woman has been unsuccessful in obtaining a refund from the widow or the decedent owner’s estate. This begs the question: can a funeral home in Virginia legally take prepayments for funeral services and put these payments towards other needs, like general operating costs?

Legally, no. Virginia Code § 54.1-2822(A) states that funds received under preneed contracts, unless towards an insurance policy or annuity contract, are to be deposited “in a special account in a bank or savings institution doing business” in Virginia. Further, such funds must be “deposited in separate, identifiable trust accounts setting forth the names of the depositor, the trustee for the person who is the subject of the contract, the name of the person who will render the funeral services and the name of the person who is the subject of the contract.” Va. Code § 54.1-2822(B). Additionally, how the funds are to be held – in trust, insurance, or annuity – needs to be disclosed in the preneed contract. See Virginia Code § 54.1-2820(A)(5), (C). Therefore, the reporters of the situation are correct when they state that this woman’s only remedy may be in the civil courts. If the contract does not state how her funds were to be held, and if the funds weren’t properly deposited and held, the funeral home has broken Virginia law.

Anastasia Fanning


No Man Left Behind

Given the costs associated with burials, it is no surprise that the homeless and those living in poverty cannot afford the traditional means of disposition, or have relatives that can claim the remains and cover the costs. Typically, the State takes possession of unclaimed human remains and either donates it to scientific/health purposes or pays for the disposition. However, many states have specific exceptions that do not allow military veterans to be donated to science for dissection. The reasoning behind this exception forbidding dissection of an unclaimed veteran may come from our country’s high reverence for those who have served our country.  

This public reverence for our veterans was exemplified recently in Wilmington, North Carolina, when a homeless Marine died and his remains went unclaimed after six months in a morgue. A Marine and former law enforcement officer took charge and claimed the homeless Marine in order to provide him a proper burial. They are presiding over the funeral with Missing in America, a nationwide non-profit corporation whose primary purpose is to identify unclaimed remains of veterans and provide them with a proper burial. This “No Man Left Behind” mindset ingrained into our veterans during their service helps shed light on the public sentiment that likely led to a veteran dissection exception in many states.

Jordan Ballard


Filing for a Permit for a Crematory in Pennsylvania

In October 2015, a funeral home in Middletown, Pennsylvania applied for a permit with the Department Environmental Protection (“DEP”) in order to establish a crematory in its garage.  In compliance with state law, the funeral home correctly notified Middletown borough’s code and zoning officer of its intent to establish a crematory.  The application is then reviewed within 30 days of receipt to make sure it is complete.  If it is complete, then the DEP commences a technical review, and if the inspection reveals no technical issues, then the DEP drafts a proposal, which is submitted to the PA Bulletin for public comment. 

The funeral home is acting in accordance with Pennsylvania law, which requires that

Every undertaker or proprietor or person in charge of any crematory or furnace or place where any human corpse shall or may be cremated or incinerated, shall, before removing any such corpse to, or receiving any such corpse at, such crematory, furnace or place for cremating or incinerating the same, obtain a permit to cremate or incinerate such corpse from the board or department of health or local health authorities of the city or locality within which such crematory furnace or place is situate.  35 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 1121 (West).

Some local citizens are concerned that the crematory will cause odors, toxins, and noise.  However, DEP’s crematorium regulations establish requirements that a crematory must comply with, such as limiting the amount of pollutants it can emit (p.2) and prohibiting a crematory from emitting odors  “in such a manner that the malodors are detectable outside the property of the permittee as specified in 25 Pa. Code § 123.31 (relating to odor emissions).” (p.6)  Additionally, a crematory must maintain records of “visible emission observations and any corrective actions” as well as the number of cremations performed. (p.5).

Brittany Colton


Cemetery Is Punished for Unauthorized Disinterment

In 2011, in Olympia, Washington, a funeral home improperly pulled up cremated remains after discovering they were located on an easement pipe. While the removal and replacement of the cremains was permitted, the funeral home was required to comply with Title 68.50.200 of the Washington State Code, which requires consent of the cemetery and the written consent of the surviving spouse, children, parents or siblings of the decedent. Only when Beth Johnson noticed that her loved ones’ remains were moved and complained to Washington’s Department of Licensing did negotiations begin between the Department and the funeral home.

While Johnson is finally able to see justice because the Funeral and Cemetery Board will issue sanctions next week, this story calls for more vigilant oversight of the funeral services industry in Washington. While Washington law requires funeral homes to report the movement of remains, there is clearly no consistent mechanism that enforces this. The main oversight here is that the city of Olympia, while it required the funeral home to move the remains from the easement pipe, neither the city nor the funeral home contemplated any legal obligation to notify families of movement of remains. While the funeral home attempted to comply with the city by moving the remains away from the easement, it was woefully wrong to do so without notifying families—especially given the fact that the funeral home is licensed as is held to a professional standard. At this point the funeral home could receive sanctions anywhere from fines to outright revocation of license. Johnson’s story shows that legal oversight pertaining to cemeteries is generally ignored—even by the funeral services industry itself.

Jasmine  Little


Families Outraged by Cemetery Rules in Tennessee

Once again families are outraged by what they view as asinine cemetery policies. Jennifer Andersen frequently visits New McDonald Eastview Cemetery to pay respects to her deceased father of 13 years. When he passed Andersen and her siblings bought a bench to commemorate their father’s life. They were surprised when they recently visited the cemetery to find the bench removed and sitting outside the gates of the cemetery. Several families have complained of things being removed from gravesites at New McDonald Eastview Cemetery.

The new policy states that only flowers are allowed and must be placed in designated vases. Families are prohibited from placing objects and other decorations on the gravesites. Denise Lee, the president of New McDonald Eastview Cemetery, states, “"We put up a notice last fall that gives them 6 months so they needed to be gone by March 31st and the sign was placed out front so it would be noticed by all and we did not remove them until this week". Therefore, the families were given nearly a year’s notice of the new policy. Lee claims that the reason for the new policy is financial. The cemetery’s revenue is generated by the sale of lots and to encourage the purchase of new lots it wants to keep the graves as neat as possible.

46-2-105 of Tennessee Cemetery and Burial laws states that no person shall willfully destroy, deface, or injure any monument, tomb, gravestone, or other structure place in a cemetery. Violation of this statute is a class E felony. The question is does this statute apply to cemetery policies and if it does would the removal of certain objects and decorations fall within the scope of the statute. The article states that families sign a contract when they purchase a grave plot. It would be important for the families to read through the contract and see if they have a possible breach of contract claim.

Michael Grace


Cemetery Tourism: Lafayette No. 1 in New Orleans

I had the good fortune to be invited to present a paper at Tulane Law School this week.  I took the St. Charles Streetcar from my hotel in the Central Business District out to Tulane, and since it stops on Washington Street, two blocks from Lafayette No. 1 Cemetery, I obviously had to spend an hour or so there. It was a drizzly, coldish (high 50s) day for New Orleans, so there were few visitors in the cemetery. I've visited Lafayette No. 1 numerous times, but it was particularly affecting to visit it without a horde of tourists.

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"Violence Towards the Helpless": Vandalism & Hate Crimes in Church Cemeteries

Two separate incidents of vandalism in church graveyards in Delaware and Alaska call into question how we as a society protect the resting places of deceased against violence.

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In Sitka, Alaska, a third act of vandalism in recent weeks was perpetrated against a 200 year-old Russian Orthodox and Native cemetery in late October. Vandals toppled heavy marble headstones, bringing the total  of severely damaged to ten since the attacks first occurred September 13th, despite efforts by caretakers to increase cemetery security.

Meanwhile in Calyton, Delaware an African-American Episcopal Church was also vandalized over Halloween weekend. Unlike the incident in Alaska however, this vandalism appears to have resulted a far more sinister motive. Headstones and signs at Foreman-Massey Cemetery, operated by the historic Byrd's AAE church, were defaced with vulgarities and swastikas, in addition to physical damage to several grave-markers. Although no suspects have been identified at this time, Delaware police are investigating the vandalism as a hate crime.

Shakira Logan, a congregant at the church, told the Delaware News Journal that they "consider it to be a hate crime being that we are an African American church and there is a swastika and other hateful messages."

This is not the first time the church has been targeted. A year prior, a sign outside of the church proper was defaced with a swastika and "racially charged messages" in permanent marker. The AAE was also the target of Dylann Roofs terroristic mass-murder of nine members of a bible study in Charleston, South Carolina early this year.

In both of these stories, the crimes appear to have provoked a strong backlash from local communities. A police officer in Sitka described the crime as "disheartening" and "so disturbing." There is no doubt that it is especially demoralizing that the attacks have continued despite repeated attempts to respond to the prior incidents and increased security measures, the attacks have continued. 

In Delaware, where the already disturbing crime is combined with the irrational hatred of racism and bigotry, the wounds to the congregation and community are that much deeper. Despite prior acts of vandalism, the attack on the "sacred ground" of the cemetery reaches a new level of malice, according to Bernard H. Williams Sr., head trustee at the church.

Although both Delaware and Alaska have laws criminalizing their desecration, cemeteries are typically unguarded areas and free from the eyes of any causal passerby, particularly at night. This low level of security however is not representative of the significance of cemeteries and graveyards to local communities. The mere fact that desecration is a crime in its own right outside of generally vandalism laws speaks to the importance society places on the protection of the resting places of the dead. When the vandalism is imbued with the corrosive malice of racism, cemetery desecration is not merely an attack on monuments, or even the dead - it is an assault on the community as a whole.

One may ask why cemetery desecration strikes this particular chord in our modern society, which has in many ways moved past a reverence of the past. Bob Sam, the Tinglit caretaker who has watched over the Sitka cemetery for over three decades, can answer that question better than I ever could. 

"I think there's a lot of anger. It's a cemetery, and it's violence toward the helpless."

Steven Verez


#RIP: Attaching digital memorials to graves

Technology and social media platforms have seemed to work their way into all aspects of our lives. But what about cemeteries? Websites like memorylinks.com and qeepr.com provide a very interesting service to customers: pay a one-time fee to receive a QR code that you then attach to a gravestone or other memorial. Scanning the QR code, using a special app for a smartphone or other similar device, links the viewer to webpage that looks something like a social media page for the deceased individual. The webpage can include the deceased’s obituary, pictures, and videos. Some services allow individuals to comment on the page, leaving a condolence to the family or telling how you might’ve known the individual. Other people, aside from just the person setting up the page, can upload their own photos and videos. The service provided by Qeepr even allows you to create a family tree for the deceased individual and invite others to join. Qeepr allows you to customize the material, size, shape, and color of the QR code to coordinate with the headstone, urn, or other public memorial.

The rationale behind Qeepr is fairly straightforward: when you visit a grave, be it of someone you know or someone you don’t, you don’t see much other than their name and the dates of their birth and death. But what about the important stuff – like who they actually were? These services allow someone – a relative or friend who wants to remember the deceased, a complete stranger who happens across the grave, or future generations of the deceased’s descendants – to learn more about the person.

As noted by the Qeepr team, funerary practices in the United States are fairly stagnant. While recent trends across the country show that we’re are moving away from the traditional funeral service and ground burial, many people still choose a funeral and burial practice similar those in the generations before them. For those not comfortable with alternatives to traditional burial, like cremation and green burial, this provides an interesting avenue to do something different. But this creates interesting legal questions regarding the common law right of interment. The right of interment can be described in two phases: the right to inter remains in a grave and the rights after interment. Do the rights extend to the webpage linked to the QR code because the QR code is on the memorial? Does someone not holding the right of interment have the right to attach one of these QR codes to the gravestone? Is it considered grave desecration if the holder of the right does not agree with placement of the QR code on the gravestone? It will be interesting to see what courts would do in the event of a disagreement over attachment of the QR code to the grave or content added to the web page.

Brandy Davis