Backyard Burials Are Legal in Connecticut, But They're Not Easy

'Tis the season of ghouls, goblins and graveyards, so you might be interested in knowing there's nothing in Connecticut law that forbids you burying someone in your own backyard.

That's not to say just anyone can go digging a grave under their kitchen window and plant Grandma or Great Aunt Lucy next to their favorite rose bush.

For one thing, our state laws (and those in seven other states) require a licensed funeral director be present at any burial on private property.

Home burials in this state are mostly governed by local zoning ordinances, and they can be rather complicated things to deal with when it comes to creating your own little cemetery. "Each community has its own zoning regulations," explains John Cascio, executive director of the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association.

The state Department of Public Health can also be involved if there's a question whether a burial in a particular location could lead to (how shall we put this delicately) "septic" issues involving ground-water contamination.

One of the only Connecticut home burials in recent history, on a family property in Clinton in 2004, began nearly a decade of zoning debates and legal actions that drifted ghost-like all the way up to the state Supreme Court and back again.

Elise Piquet's husband, Christopher John Shaboe Doll, was a decorated Spitfire pilot in Britain's Royal Air Force during World War II. He and his wife had both wanted to be buried together in Chester, but at the time Doll died, no plots were available in the local cemetery.

So Elise Piquet, now 84, decided to bury her husband on their eight-acre property. Previous owners of the land had been burying family members there for a long time, so Piquet went ahead and, with a funeral director properly in attendance, buried her husband behind their 242-year-old house.

Piquet later made the grievous error of trying to make sure that everything was done exactly right. She contacted state officials who referred her to the local Chester zoning office, which then decided to issue an order to "cease and desist." Which apparently meant Piquet should dig up her husband and bury him somewhere else.

Piquet went to court and the case eventually reached the state Supreme Court last year. In its decision, the court ruled 4-3 that it wasn't going to decide the burial issue at all. Instead, its decision was that Piquet hadn't exhausted all her possible local zoning appeal options.

At this point, the whole case appears to be in zoning zombie-land. John Bennet, Chester town attorney, says that "nothing has happened" since the Supremes handed down their ruling.

These battles over backyard (or front-yard) burials aren't limited to Connecticut.

A good old boy down in the little town of Stevenson, Alabama has been making national news for burying his wife right next to their front steps. James Davis has been ordered by local and state officials to dig up his wife, Patsy, and re-rebury her in a regular cemetery.

Davis, 74, has refused, saying he made a promise to his wife and plans on keeping it. He says officials are going to have to wait for him to die to exhume her body.

If all this stuff discourages you about backyard burials, you might be glad to know that Connecticut law also has no specific prohibition against burying someone at sea in state waters.

Unfortunately, state officials have ruled you'd probably need to get a state environmental permit if you wanted to dump a body within three miles of the Connecticut shoreline. According to a state legislative research report, no one has ever applied for a permit to have a body disposed of in state waters.

Outside that three-mile limit is federal territory, and there are definite federal rules you'd have to follow for a burial at sea. For one thing, disposing of a body requires the water be at least 600 feet deep, and you'd have to make sure the body sank quickly and permanently to the bottom.

Cremated remains (always referred to by funeral professionals as "cremains") being put in the ocean don't need that 600-foot depth. Cremains, for the uninitiated, aren't really just ashes as is commonly supposed: apparently the remains include some chunky bits and pieces of bones, etc. So all those movie comedy scenes of someone's "ashes" flying back in people's faces like dust are little more than Hollywood make-believe.

While off-beat burials are rather rare in Connecticut, Cascio says "personalized" funerals are becoming lots more popular. Having services where a fisherman's favorite rod and lures are on display, and maybe burying them with him, are no longer considered peculiar, Cascio says.

"I think you're seeing more and more families come forward and do that," he says.

One advantage to avoiding those home-style burials, experts point out, is that having your own private cemetery can really hurt property values.

Building on or developing a property where a legal grave exists can be a rather ghoulish experience. First you have to get legal permission, and the tab for digging somebody up and reburying them elsewhere can run you as much as $10,000.

So keep that in mind this Halloween, just in case you happen to be considering how convenient it would be to have a cemetery in your own backyard.

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