The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s recent opinion in Church of the Holy Spirit of Wayland v. Heinrich, No. SJC-13326 (Mar. 14, 2023) isn’t our usual takings-and-related fare, but it is straight-up Dirt Law and a bit land-usey so we’re posting it. Besides, it is just what you need to perk up your ears midweek.
The church, like a lot of churches, has a place where the dearly departed are interred. But this is not your typical cemetery or graveyard, but a “‘Memorial Garden,’ also referred to as a ‘Churchyard[,]’ [where] [p]arishoners could arrange for cremated remains (cremains” to be interred in the Churchyard by purchasing a certificate from the church.” Slip op. at 3. Those certificates included a provision that subjected the purchaser to church regulation of the Churchyard “now or hereafter in force.” Id.
Over the years, the problems besetting the church were more of the worldly variety: declining membership, financial difficulties. In 2015, it voted to close. The church itself was to be sold, and the offering included the Churchyard. Another church (St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church of Boston) was thinking of buying, but objected, “largely because the Coptic Church’s religious beliefs do not permit cremation.” Slip op. at 4.
Eventually, the Church of the Holy Spirit agreed to disinter and relocated the cremains as a condition of the sale to St. Mark Coptic. The sale was completed, and St. Mark resold the property to another Coptic church (which had the same objection to the cremains remaining).
The Holy Spirit church contacted the families of the 49 individuals whose cremains remained in the Churchyard. How about relocating and reinterring elsewhere at church expense, or we return the cremains to you? Most agreed. But a few did not. When no compromise could be reached, the church amended the Churchyard regulations to provide that if the church closed, the interred cremains could be relocated or returned to the families. The church then sued, seeking a declaratory judgment that the amended regulations allowed it to remove the cremains over any objections.
The objecting family members counterclaimed. Not only was this a breach of contract, Massachusetts common law limits the power of the church to mess around with interred remains, and the family members “urge us to recognize that certain trust-like property rights are held by all families of those interred, rights that the church may not regulate out of existence by contract.” Slip op. at 9.
After all, don’t we call what’s left of the dearly departed “remains” for a reason?
No, held the Mass SJC. The court surveyed its prior decisions, it held that the rights of the families are circumscribed by contract (the certificates, by which the families agree to be regulated by the church). Slip op. at 12 (“Review of our limited cases addressing burial rights reveals no common-law rights of the kind asserted by the families.”) (footnote omitted). The court rejected a rule from Tennessee (Hines v. State, 126 Tenn. 1 (1911)), which recognized a type of trust, concluding the rule is “a poor fit for the case at bar.” Slip op. at 13 (footnote omitted).
So there’s no common-law right to have these remains remain. But the court was quick to caution that its rule is limited to the facts of this case, and “that in other circumstances a different result might obtain.” Slip op. at 15. This is, after all, a “sensitive, difficult” topic, with a large human element.
Church of the Holy Spirit of Wayland v. Heinrich, No. SJC-13326 (Mass. Mar. 14, 2023)