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Funerals/Help with Michigan township burial ordinance


After reading your book, I contacted my township about my intention to create a family cemetery on my rural property.  I was told that the ordinances we currently have in place did not address that issue, but that since they were in the process of updating their ordinances they would address the matter.  I was led to believe that it would be a simple matter, mostly following Michigan's Public Act with a few restrictions.  In today's Grand Rapids Press I read the following headline:
Jamestown board asks: Would you want a body buried next door? By Cathy Runyon
The article goes on to say:

"If you wanted to be buried in your back yard, would the government allow it?
The number of home burials in this country is tiny, but interest is rising. Cost is a consideration, with the average price of traditional funerals now at $7,000 to $10,000. So-called “green burials” and home funerals can lower the cost, and burial on private property is a bargain. However, sentiment, ethics, and a desire for a more natural end to life are driving forces, too.

But is it legal?

Can you really bury a body on your farm or house lot? What will the neighbors think? Will anyone ever want to buy your property if it’s a cemetery, or if it’s next to one? The Jamestown Township Board has been wrestling for a month with such questions since receiving a revised cemetery ordinance from the Planning Commission for approval.

Township Attorney Mark Nettleton read the surprisingly short Michigan Public Act No. 88 of 1875 (MCL 128111) to the Township Board. In short, it states that any person may designate up to one acre of land outside incorporated city or village limits to be used as a private burial ground for his or her family. The land must be deeded, the deed recorded with the county, and a trustee named.

That’s about it.

But local laws do come into play. In Michigan, a licensed funeral director must be involved in the disposal of human remains, whether or not the body is embalmed, according to Kelly VanderLaan, with VanderLaan Funeral Home in Hudsonville, and he or she must be present at the interment as a witness. VanderLaan said in Michigan, a burial vault is not required, but is encouraged to prevent soil from sinking. She knows of no requests that have come to the business for private burial.

In nearby Georgetown Township, there are four private family cemeteries – historic Haire Cemetery, Lowing, Hanley, and Jenison. A small area on 10th Avenue, where remains of what was believed to be small pox victims were discovered, has been deeded to the Jenison Historical Society. The Shackhuddle cemetery, Barry Street east of 22nd Avenue,  was abandoned, and existing remains moved to Georgetown Township Cemetery.

According to Township Manager Dan Carlton, Georgetown has no restrictions other than state statute for private cemeteries.

The Jamestown Township Planning Commission took up discussion of private burials when an informal request for information was received from Coretta Kamminga, a life-long resident of Jamestown, according to zoning administrator Kirk Sharphorne, Jr., with PCI. The Planning Commission looked at the cemetery ordinance and found no provision for private burials.

“They wanted to include some things like setbacks from the road, and landscaping,” said Sharphorne. The Planning Commission then sent the draft ordinance on to the Township Board.

The Jamestown Township board is now trying to decide whether to expand the suggested ordinance and add more local restrictions.

Trustee Janet Oskin said she would not want a private cemetery in a neighborhood setting. “It should be in the AR zone (with acreage) only, and on a permanent main road” to avoid the need to move graves if a road were to be widened. She also wanted to see a trust fund for maintenance.

Trustee Tim Tacoma asked, “They own the land. Why can’t they use it the way they want to?”

Trustee Gale Altman said so many requirements gives the impression the board was trying to stop home burials, which are allowed by the state.

Can a cemetery be sold? Who would make sure land owners in the distant future know there is a grave on the site? Would it make work for township personnel who would have to issue permits, registries, and trust accounts?

Trustee Dan Jensen said he thought the township should be “as restrictive as we can be” when designing an ordinance, but Tacoma responded “That’s kind of mean.”

“I represent the people of the whole township,” said Jensen. “You can’t just do whatever you want.”

Supervisor Ken Bergwerff asked board members to send him e-mails detailing their suggestions in preparation for another round of talks next month.

Tacoma said he knows of no private cemeteries in Jamestown Township, and none are registered with Ottawa County."
I am concerned that my township is going to make it almost impossible for me to have a family cemetery.  I plan on attending next months meeting and would like to know if you could give me any advice on how to proceed or whom to contact for help with this matter.

As far as I can tell, you simply need the permission of the local health official. Then have it surveyed and recorded with the deed. As long as you've picked a spot away from any water supply, there should be no health issue. I'd speed ahead with that if you can.

In the meantime, you can feel free to quote me as saying Michigan has one of the best home burial statutes, and I cite it as an example all the time. Home burial is a wonderful historical tradition. Most family farms, for instance, have their own family burial ground. Personally, I would consider it an asset if I found land that already had a burial ground with room for my family, too. How nice to own the history. Other properties with family cemeteries have sold, so Jensen should cool his britches. What a mean person he is!!! Is he willing to pay for your burial if you're not allowed to be buried on your own land? Let me know how you make


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Lisa Carlson


Funeral Law. Having written a 512-page book on funeral law for consumers with state-by-state information, I am very conversant with consumer rights in this regard: What are the laws on disposition of cremated remains? Is embalming required? Do I have to use a funeral home? Can I have a home wake? Is it a state law to buy a vault? I prepaid for a funeral but changed my mind. They won`t give me all my money back. What can I do? . . . If you have an immediate need for information because a death has just occurred or is about to occur, you may call me at 802-482-6021.


I have monitored the funeral industry on behalf of consumers for over 20 years. I have been a guest speaker to funeral trade organizations, consumer workshops, and social service professionals. I am regularly consulted by lawyers and legislators as well as journalists.

Funeral Ethics Organization ( Funeral Consumers Alliance (

Caring for Your Own Dead (1987) Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love (1998) I Died Laughing: Funeral Education with a Light Touch (2001) Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death (2011) with co-author Joshua Slocum

Masters degree in Administration and Special Education

Past/Present Clients
Available as an expert witness for funeral-related court cases.

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