Who owns that grave?

by | Feb 2, 2024

There’s an open burial space that was originally purchased many years ago by your deceased relative; who owns the space now and who can be buried there?

There are specific laws in place to determine the rightful owner, and our Office Managers are trained to understand and explain the descent of ownership. When someone purchases a grave, niche, crypt, etc. at a cemetery, they are not purchasing the land itself but the right to be buried in that specific space. That’s why you don’t pay property taxes on any cemetery property!

To assist our staff with ensuring a lot descends to the correct individual, it is always helpful to have a family member who is familiar with the family tree. Our staff will ask specific questions to determine who the burial rights will descend to at the cemetery after an owner has passed away.

The following scenario is an example of how one cemetery lot could descend:

After searching for some time you discover that your great-grandparents (Charles and Ida Smith) are buried at Calvary Cemetery in Saint Paul, MN. In the 1890’s your great-grandfather (Charles) purchased five graves. When you call the cemetery to confirm the burial location of your ancestors, you are told there are three empty graves (burial rights) still listed under your great-grandfather’s name. Now what?

The Office Manager asks for some family history, and you provide the staff member with the following information:

  1. Charles Smith died in 1920, leaving no will, leaving surviving spouse, Ida.
  2. Ida, a widowed person, died in 1936, leaving surviving eldest son, James Smith.
  3. James Smith, a widowed person, died in 1970 leaving surviving eldest son, Fred Smith.
  4. Fred Smith, a married person, died in 2011, leaving surviving spouse, Grace Smith, and eldest child, you.

The Office Manager must use the statutes in effect at the time of death of each of these individuals, dating back to the law that took effect in April of 1895 and was in effect until June of 1935. With the information you provided, the Office Manager informs you that the burial rights descend to both Grace Smith and you. What does this mean? This means that Grace has the right to be buried in one of those three open burial rights, and after Grace’s death, you will inherit full ownership of these graves.

Believe it or not, this is a very common scenario that occurs at our cemeteries, especially with the interest in family genealogy on the rise. This is just one example of how a cemetery lot may descend, but each scenario will vary based on the dates of death of each family member. Families are often unaware that there may be unoccupied burial space available that was purchased by their ancestors many years ago.