You Be the Judge: The Plot Thickens

Kathy Salyer was shocked to learn that the cemetery sold of her mother's burial plot. The case went to court. How would you rule?

A cemetery with an open burial plot.

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In 1982, Kathy Salyer bought four contiguous gravesites (Lot 14) and a fifth plot (Gravesite 15) directly north of them in Washington Regular Baptist Church Cemetery near Versailles, Indiana. For each plot, she paid $75 and received a certificate of ownership. Over the years, Salyer buried her father at the northern end of Lot 14 and her first and second husbands at the south end, with a plot between them for herself. She planned to bury her mother in Gravesite 15, next to her father.

Three decades after the purchase, in early 2014, Salyer was shocked to discover that a stranger named Lowell Johnson had been buried in the gravesite meant for her mother. She contacted the cemetery, which acknowledged that it had made a “mistake” and inadvertently sold Gravesite 15 twice, first to Salyer in 1982 and later for the burial of Johnson in 2013. Salyer asked the cemetery to relocate Johnson, but Johnson’s family objected. Instead, the cemetery offered Salyer the gravesite directly south of Lot 14 (at no charge), which would place her mother’s remains next to Salyer’s second husband.

On May 18, 2015, Salyer sued the cemetery, requesting it move Johnson and restore Gravesite 15 to her. Johnson’s daughter intervened because she did not want her father moved. The trial was set to start in April 2016, but Salyer’s mother passed away in December 2015. Under the circumstances, to keep her parents together, Salyer had her mother cremated and buried in the gravesite with her father. This, however, did not change Salyer’s desire to have Gravesite 15 returned to her.

During the trial, the cemetery employee who sold the lot to the Johnson family testified that Salyer’s records had been overlooked when she was trying to find a burial plot for Johnson that was near his family; his father and other family members were buried in three plots directly north of Gravesite 15. The cemetery’s gravedigger testified that in similar instances, this type of mistake had been “corrected by either removing the body or by providing the aggrieved party with a similar burial plot.”

Salyer maintained that the only way to correct the error was for the cemetery to move Johnson out of her gravesite, citing Indiana law that requires that when a wrongful burial occurs, the cemetery owner, at its expense, shall “correct the wrongful burial as soon as practical after becoming aware of the error.”

A trial court ruled that the cemetery did not have to move Johnson but ordered them to refund the $75 Salyer paid for the plot and to give her the gravesite directly south of Lot 14. In its decision, the court stated that Salyer had failed to provide a reason the specific gravesite was significant to her and that “removing Lowell Johnson from being next to his parents and his grandson” would be traumatic to his remaining family.

When Salyer appealed, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision.

How Would You Rule?

On March 11, 2020, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed in favor of Salyer. The Court explained that Indiana law dictates the only legal correction for a wrongful burial is one in which the burial is no longer “in the wrong lot, grave, grave space, burial space, etc.,” adding that there is no discretion for the courts “to fashion an alternative form of relief.” The trial court was instructed to order the cemetery to correct the wrongful burial by removing Johnson’s remains from the gravesite and restoring it for Salyer’s use.

Kathy Salyer v. Washington Regular Baptist Church Cemetery

This article is featured in the March/April 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Rob Byron / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. I agree with Bob. The cemetery was at fault in both instances and due to their negligence, caused undue angst and heartache to both families.
    Also makes one wonder how many times this has been done in the past due to sloppy recording by the cemeteries. And how many plots were sold twice with the original owner forgetting?

  2. I absolutely agree with the Indiana Supreme Court’s 2020 reversal of the trial court and Indiana Court of Appeals previous, very erroneous decisions regarding this case. Unfortunately there was human error with the overlooking of the original ’82 purchase of Gravesite 15 in 2013 with the Johnson burial there. This was compounded in 2014 when Ms. Salyer discovered the shocking mistake.

    I feel bad for the Johnson family also victims too, and can understand why his daughter did not want his body moved. The trial was unfortunately necessary to right the wrong. I’m glad the employee who made the mistake admitted to it, and could understand the cemetery’s attempt to try to “fix it” by the cheaper way out of providing a similar burial plot, as it’s likely happened other times and worked for appeasement.

    Ms. Salyer knew the Indiana law, yet was still ruled against by the trial court. Being offered a $75 refund ($188 in 2016 dollars) and being accused of not providing a specific reason (to her) for that particular gravesite’s significance was insult on top of injury. I’m glad she appealed to the state’s Supreme Court for the proper outcome as described!

    Two families caught up in a terrible, traumatizing mess through no faults of their own. This should be a lesson to all cemeteries in not being extremely careful and cautious regarding gravesites and burial plots. It makes me wonder how often this happens (unwittingly or not), and they get away with it. REALLY bad when taking into account the outrageous cost of funerals otherwise. Awful.

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