St. George City Council discusses reclaiming ‘abandoned’ cemetery plots

ST. GEORGE — The 1980s was the last time the city of St. George reclaimed cemetery plots that were considered to be abandoned after going unused for decades. Now city officials are looking at doing the same with unused plots purchased prior to 1963.

The Downtown Cemetery in St. George, Utah, April 14, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Talk of reclaiming potentially abandoned cemetery plots was discussed among City Council and staff on Thursday as Assistant City Attorney Ryan Dooley highlighted the issue.

“We’re trying to put people on notice who haven’t talked to us in 60 years,” Dooley said.

Under Utah law, a municipality or cemetery can reclaim an unused plot if it hasn’t been used for burial purposes for over 60 years and the owner of the plot fails to file notice of any claim to the site.

The city would make an effort to contact the plot owner by mailing a notice to their last known address. The notice would also be posted to a public notice website, as well as the city of St. George website for a period of three weeks.

“We do everything in our power to make sure they’re notified,” said Shane Moore, the director of the city’s parks department.

If the plot owner contacts the city before the notice period ends and provides proof the plot is theirs, the rights to the site are preserved for future use.

“This process is to determine which plots have truly been abandoned,” David Cordero, the city’s communications and marketing director, told St. George News in an email Friday. “So if the plot owner contacts the city, then we will ensure that our records are updated.”

The Downtown Cemetery in St. George, Utah, April 14, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

If the plot owner fails to contact the city, their property rights for that spot are considered terminated under state law and the plot is reclaimed.

However, for those who contact the city too late, yet have proof of ownership for the plot, such as a deed, the city can refund the original price of the plot, minus the perpetual care fee, or work with the plot owner to secure a new burial location within one of the city cemeteries.

“You’ll have the right to be buried in our cemetery, but not a particular plot,” Dooley said during Thursday’s meeting.

One reason the city will be willing to work with plot owners on this issue is due to the possibility of a resident buying a plot many years and passing on the site deed to a relative in a will upon their death.

In such cases, the transfer of ownership isn’t always reported back to the city, which can lead to the site being declared abandoned and available for someone else.

City ordinance does not allow burial plots to be sold from one person to another, Dooley said. This is meant to keep potential plot speculators from inflating the price and profiting off the sale of city burial plots.

According to the city’s website, full burial plots in can run $450-$650, with perpetual care costs being $300-$400.

Tonaquint Cemetery, St. George, Utah, Sept. 26, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

In addition to the burial plot discussion, Dooley also mentioned the desire for residents to be able to bury cremated remains — or cremains — in a burial plot minus an urn. St. George is the only city in the area that has the urn requirement, he added.

Currently, the remains of two people can be placed in a placed in a full burial plot as long as they are in urns, which are typically placed in vaults for burial. Half plots can accommodate one urn vault.

Removing the urn requirement will allow up to four cremains to be placed in a full plot, Councilman Jimmie Hughes said. Hughes, who is a mortician, said cremation has become increasing popular and demands for space to keep cremains will likely continue to grow.

In addition to accommodating those demands, it is hoped that a change to the ordinance will also bring an end to individuals burying cremains in cemeteries “under the cover of night,” Dooley said.

A particular case was mentioned during the council meeting about cremains that had been buried in a hat that city workers found while working on sprinkler lines in one of the city cemeteries.

By the end of the discussion, the council directed city staff to revise the ordinance. Once the language has been changed to remove the urn requirement, the ordinance will be brought before the City Council in a future work meeting for a vote.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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