Cemetery Case Puts Property Rights Issue before the U.S. Supreme Court

When is a cemetery not a cemetery?

According to Rose Mary Knick, a piece of property is not a cemetery when almost no one believes there are bodies buried in the land.

Knick makes no bones about it. She doesn’t buy the idea that there are bodies buried on her eastern Pennsylvania farmland, and she doesn’t want people strolling onto her property to visit what her town says is a small cemetery. Knick, 69, says her town’s ordinance wouldn’t protect her if people injure themselves on her land and sue. And she says if the town is going to take her private property and open it up to the public, they should pay her. She says she believes that the town was trying to make an example out of her for questioning lawmakers’ decisions.

Knick’s neighbor Robert Vail Sr., 85, says Knick knows exactly where there’s a cemetery on her land. Vail’s family has lived in the area since the early 1800s and he says it’s his relatives, at least half a dozen of them, who are buried there. He has a list of them, prepared decades ago by a local historian, and pictures of some gravestones. Vail is seeking a legal right to visit what he believes are the burial places of his ancestors.

The issue is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a decision concerning property owners’ rights over the land they own.

You can read the full story in an article by Jessica Gresko in the Associated Press at: https://apnews.com/86ec9d89d4d34579b528845f5f8c1642.

My thanks to newsletter reader Don Brownlee for telling me about this story.


Ground Penetrating Radar should resolve it at least in the near term. If there are no bodies, no more squabble. But if there are, then the issues are pertinent.


    excellent suggestion, ! but doing the ground penetrating Radar could turn into an expensive fight, If the owner doesn’t want to let that be done….it could cost a bit of money , to fight for the right to do that. But having said that perhaps the owner might be cajoled into having some one other then him/her foot the bill.

    Fran in NJ


The owner of the property is right: if the city wants to have that land available for visits as a cemetery, then it should purchase that portion of her property and whatever easement that would be necessary to allow visitors to come and go without bothering the owner. Doesn’t the state have an unlawful takings clause in their constitution? If it doesn’t, it should.


Her Lawyer or she herself or the man who believes his family is buried on that land, might go back to the Original Deed. My Uncle when he sold the early Homestead my Grandmother is buried on, put it in the Original Deed about her burial site, because he wanted to reserve the right for Himself & our Family to go to her grave site. It never was carried on into subsequent Deeds. I found out who owned the property now and wrote him a letter about it, citing that Deed in the county. He kindly wrote back, allowed that we were welcome to visit. Asking only that we not trash the property while we were on it. We were careful to not do that, although no one at the time lived on the Property, and he was using it for timber.


Actually, it has been established via case law that burials are NOT property and that a landowner (usually but not always) has the obligation to protect such burials, absent a valid permit from the relevant authority (e.g., state health department) that allows said landowner to relocate a burial. The inviolable nature of a grave has been upheld with regard to Native American graves that were “inconveniencing” a landowner who wanted to develop the property they were on. Not sure if I can include links here without getting ensnared in the spam filter, so google “When Dirt and Death Collide” for a legal overview of the relevant legal principles in general. Also, google the University of Iowa’s guidance for landowners in that state. They state, in part: “The right for burials to remain undisturbed is based in old English law. A recent court case in Iowa affirmed this right and determined that implementation of state laws that protect burial sites does not constitute a taking [519 N.W. 2nd 367 (Iowa 1994)].”


If there is evidence of a patriot of the American Revolution buried there, I would hope a local chapter of DAR or of their State Society of DAR would make plans to have the grave located and to place a DAR marker at the grave site.


    Part of DAR’s process to place the marker is to obtain permission of the owner…be it a cemetery or private land. Based on what I’m reading, I doubt Ms. Knick would give it.


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