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The Supreme Judicial Court has weighed in on a legal dispute concerning the rights of a church to disinter and relocate the cremated remains buried in the church’s graveyard.

The legal row began in 2015 when the Episcopalian Church of the Holy Spirit of Wayland concluded, after years of declining membership, that it was no longer viable and needed to close.

Following this decision, the church property, which included its burial yard, was sold to St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church of Boston.  As part of the sale, the Episcopalian church agreed to remove the cremated remains that were buried in the church’s graveyard.  Such burials are impermissible to Coptic Christians.

There were, at the time, 49 cremated burials at the Episcopalian graveyard.  Most families consented to the ashes being disinterred.  However, twelve families objected and a lengthy legal battle ensued.

The key issue was whether the Episcopalian church’s “burial certificates” gave the church authority to disinter the cremated bodies without the certificate holders’ consent.

The SJC concluded

 Although we acknowledge the sensitive — even sacred — nature of the subject matter of this dispute, we conclude that the burial certificates’ unambiguous language permits the disinterment and that no common law right held by the families prevents it.

According to the SJC’s description of the contested burial certificates

[They] each granted the purchaser a right to one or more interments that were ‘subject to the regulations of the Churchyard now or hereafter in force.’

When the church met resistance from families refusing to consent to disinterment, it took advantage of the certificates’ “subject to” provision to change its regulations.   The church revised its existing regulations to state that

If the Church of the Holy Spirit ceases operations or ceases operations at the property where the Churchyard Memorial Garden is located, then the Vestry or Executive Committee, as the case may be, may cause the Churchyard Memorial Garden to be discontinued or moved to an alternate location, and/or cause all cremated remains located in the Churchyard Memorial Garden to be disinterred and relocated to one or more other locations within the Diocese of Massachusetts or returned to the families of the cremains.

After litigation that passed through probate court, superior court, and the appeals court, the SJC ultimately decided that the church’s actions were permissible under contract law.

 The rights and responsibilities of the parties are governed by the language of the certificates, which are indisputably contracts…The certificates are exceedingly straightforward. They grant “right[s] of . . . interments” and state that any such right conveyed is subject to regulation by the church.7 Importantly, they further provide that the church may amend the regulations after the contract is executed, a right that is reiterated in the regulations themselves. Such terms are not unique in burial contracts.

The SJC rejected the families’ argument 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.”

Noting the scarcity of case law on the matter, the SJC relied on cases involving pew owners’ rights when refuting the families’ claims.

Pew owners are holders of “qualified, subsidiary and dependent” rights, and our law has consistently held that if a church closes “not wantonly or unreasonably or with intent to injure the pew holders . . . , the pew owner is without remedy.

Nevertheless, the SJC was certain to point out that its decision in this case was based heavily on the facts at hand and, under different circumstances, a different conclusion might be reached:

In other circumstances, a different result might obtain…Although we resolve this case by applying long standing legal principles, we, of course, recognize the human element involved. We also reiterate that in other circumstances a different result might obtain. Disinterring the remains of one’s ancestors will forever be a sensitive, difficult prospect.