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Cemetery poses grave dilemma for farm buyers

Image: Visitors stand in the Aldrich Cemetery in Hartland, Vt.
Visitors stand in the Aldrich Cemetery in Hartland, Vt., where a proposal to move three graves from the old family cemetery has caused outcry from historians, veterans and neighbors.Toby Talbot / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The 130-acre property was exactly what Michel Guite and his family wanted: an old Vermont farm with mountain views, rolling hills and meadows.

There was, however, one wrinkle: The property included a small family cemetery — with the grave of a War of 1812 veteran — surrounded by a fence on a scenic knoll.

His proposal to move the graveyard so he can build a house and barn has set off protests. The town has passed a resolution aimed at blocking the move, a descendant of one occupant of the graveyard is trying to fight him in probate court and opponents including military veterans have asked the town to take over the cemetery and keep it where it is.

"We're looking for some precedence setting, because we've never heard of such a heinous thing," said Tom Giffin, president of the Vermont Old Cemetery Association.

Cemeteries have been dug up for public good before, to make way for roads and buildings, but "there's never been the case in the state of Vermont for somebody to move a cemetery to put a house up," Giffin said.

A matter of property rights?
Opponents say it's about honoring the dead, and respecting the graveyard as a historical site.

For Guite, it's about property rights.

"I've got nothing against any of those people," he said. "I'm only going to buy this if a judge says `This is now your land, it's your private property, you're allowed to do whatever you want with it. We hope you look after it well, God bless you for it, and nobody has any right to go on your property than they have to go on every other Vermont farm's property.'"

Guite, 62, of Greenwich, Conn., signed an option to buy the land in December — contingent on being able to move the graves.

Among other things, he doesn't want the graves around his three young children. "I feel that it's improper to have a reminder of the sadness of life so near where children are playing," he said in February.

Guite wants to move three graves that he said are registered with the town, those of War of 1812 veteran Noah Aldrich II, who died Jan. 15, 1848 at age 61; and Aldrich's two grandchildren, who died within a day of each other in 1850 during a flu epidemic.

He proposed moving their graves and headstones to another spot — perhaps on his land, perhaps in the town cemetery.

But historians say there are more than three graves, including that of Aldrich's wife, Lydia. And a previous owner of the land, Jerome King of Hanover, N.H., buried his parents' cremated remains there before selling the farm in the 1980s, and he has said he also opposes moving the graveyard. Descendants of the Kings visit several times a year.

Veterans oppose the move
"I'm against it on principal," said Jim Bulmer, a member of the Bridgewater American Legion who attended a Probate Court hearing on the issue with about 10 other veterans. "You've got a veteran in there from the war of 1812, who has come to his final resting place and let the poor guy rest in peace. He served his country. Why do we need to move cemeteries to accommodate an individual who has a particular agenda?"

Moving bodies is not unusual, as in cases of moving family members closer to each other, said Jimmy Johnston, a lobbyist for the Vermont Funeral Directors' Association, and owner of the Barber and Lanier Funeral home in Montpelier.

However, Johnston said, "Moving graves of someone who is not a family member, unless it's eminent domain, I've never heard of one being moved to build a house."

Guite said he followed the law, advertising the move in the newspaper with no objection from immediate relatives.

But in a recent probate court hearing, a judge reached across several generations and designated Marcia Neal of Grand Junction, Colo. — the great, great, great granddaughter of Noah and Lydia Aldrich — as representative for the family.

"I've begun to feel a real personal connection to these people," Neal said.

Although her first inclination would be not to move the graves, she wants to find a solution.

"It has become so involved and sort of complicated. I'd hate to stand in the way of anybody's right to buy and sell property. I would really like to be able to help reach a solution to the problem. I'm not sure what they would be."