How Would You Decide This Grave Legal Issue?

The law, many argue, should strike a balance between allowing autonomy and protecting society.

So when the government steps into what seem to be personal matters, people have been known to object.

James Davis late wife grave in front yardTake the case of James Davis, a widower in Stevenson, Ala., who wanted to honor his late wife’s wishes by burying her at home. The couple had been married for 48 years. As Davis, now 74, saw it, digging a grave in his front yard was the last in a series of loving acts he’d done for his wife since they met in elementary school.

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But the city of Stevenson, even while admitting that it had no ordinance against burying a human being on residential property, took exception with Davis’ plans. (The county health department, for its part, had no objection.) Members of the city council argued that the single grave on Davis’ property could drive down property values; they also expressed concern that no one would tend the grave after his death. But the biggest problem, according to town spokespeople, was that they didn’t want to set a precedent that would allow anyone to bury a loved one in their yards.

A determined Davis simply ignored the city council, got himself a backhoe, and buried his wife front and center in the yard. He marked the grave so that there could be no question that, yes, she was there. And then, when the city sued him, he defended himself all the way up to the Alabama Supreme Court. That court ordered him to obey the city council’s ruling.

While it will be interesting to see how the case turns out – Davis has proposed exhuming his wife’s body, cremating it, and reburying it in the same spot – what’s even more interesting is the key legal dilemma it presents: How should we weigh personal interests versus community interests? If it’s not hurting anyone to have Mrs. Davis’ grave in the front yard, what’s the big deal? On the other hand, how do we measure “harm”? Is it enough that some people might find such a personal cemetery “gross”? Is it enough that their property values might drop? And when should government – in this case, the five members of the Stevenson city council – intervene?

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