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The Plot Thickens: A Court Will Have to Sort Out Dispute When Men Placed in Each Other's Graves

In October 2015, Lewis T. Chadwick, Jr. was buried in Pocasset Hill Cemetery in Tiverton, Rhode Island. Five months later, Raymond Murray was buried three graves away. The problem? Chadwick is buried in Murray's grave and Murray is buried in Chadwick's. 

The solution Chadwick's widow prefers, which is supported by the chairwoman of the town cemetery commission, is to leave the men where they are and switch the deeds. However, Murray's family wants the plot they selected, which would involve disinterring the men and re-interring them in the correct graves. The town attempted to facilitate an agreement between the families, but when this proved unsuccessful, the town filed for a declaratory judgment in Superior Court. Until resolved, the men remain in the graves which they presently occupy. 

No Rhode Island statutes directly address this issue, and Rhode Island case law indicates that once a body is buried, a court will only order removal for "necessity" or "laudable purposes." (See Sullivan v. Catholic Cemeteries). The issue here will be whether correcting the mistake falls within "necessity" or "laudable purposes." Another issue will be how to decide which family takes precedence over the other. The existing cases only deal with disputes between members of the same family.

Case law also seems to indicate that "consent" is a "crucial factor" considered by the courts. It is unclear when Murray's family found out about the mistake, but if they found out before burial, and permitted it anyway, did they consent to his burial in that plot? If so, will the court consider the emotional circumstances a negating factor?  

Although case law indicates that cemetery plots are property, courts have distinguished them from other real property in numerous ways. Will a court consider "uniqueness" of the plots as is often a consideration in real property disputes? If so, are the plots unique enough? The plots are in the same row of the cemetery, approximately thirty-two feet apart, and are both four-person plots. 

Finally, Pocasset Hill Cemetery is a municipal cemetery run by the Town of Tiverton. While the town is going to pay for the switch if ordered by a court, will the families have any recourse against the town or the cemetery?

Rebecca Ann Daddino

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