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Highland considering allowing private backyard cemeteries

By Cathy Allred daily Herald - | Nov 18, 2015

Highland city leaders are facing a conundrum involving where to put dead bodies, after a resident is requesting to bury her dying husband in their backyard, creating a private family plot.

Steven and Susan Ledkin moved to Highland in 1991. For the past four years, Steven Ledkin has needed kidney dialysis.

“… [He] is soon choosing to go off his treatments as he is tired of feeling so bad and has no quality of life or energy to function at a normal level,” Ledkin said in a letter dated Oct. 9 to the Highland City Council members.

“This action of discontinuing treatment means he will expire very quickly,” the letter stated.

Since they owe nothing on the home or property, she added that they desire to make a private family cemetery.

“He worked so hard to build and create our residence and make it what it’s been,” she said in the letter.

Mayor Mark Thompson was not pleased with the unanimous decision to table discussion on the issue for a second time since Oct. 20.

There already is a private cemetery in Highland with five bodies buried there, one that dates back to pioneer days. 

Councilwoman Jessie Schoenfeld had met with the Highland Historical Society and said its members want to make the pioneer cemetery open to the public. The landowner of the pioneer cemetery land is cooperating with that request and scouts have built a fence around the small plat.

“You can’t guarantee that anybody is going to want to do that,” Schoenfeld said of future landowners.

Thompson seemed to think that there was no difference between bodies buried 100 years ago to the present.

 “I think that it’s a little out of line to say,” Thompson said, adding they didn’t regulate the first cemetery, and if they regulated the second, their action would impact the first.  

Council members Brian Braithwaite and Rod Mann were concerned allowing a private family cemetery would result in future issues.

“What is stopping someone from buying an acre and turning it into a private cemetery as a business in the middle of a residential area?” Braithwaite asked.

If a cemetery became a business, the cemetery would need to be regulated as a business and sent through the approval process just as any other business must do in Highland, he said.

“Not just anybody is going to create a cemetery on their property,” Mann said and Braithwaite agreed.

Another potential problem involved the passage of time.

The landowner gets older and because there is no demarcation of the private family cemetery, problems could arise. The example used looked at a situation where the landowner, or future owner, hires someone to rototill up his backyard. Because the person rototilling doesn’t know there is a cemetery there, he grinds up any mementos or markers of the past.

Assistant to the city administrator Erin Wells presented the item at the Nov. 17 Highland City Council meeting, saying the state code dictates the family needs to record a cemetery plat with the county, in this case Utah County, and must have the county staff approve the request.

Once approved, the family sets the policies of the private cemetery.

In urban America, especially in urban Utah, most dead bodies get buried in municipal or business-managed public cemeteries or are cremated.

The majority of private family cemeteries in urban parts of Utah are a relic of the past. Many have fallen into disarray. Some cities like Pleasant Grove, Lehi and American Fork have ordinances regulating the existence of private cemeteries on residential property.  

As far as Lehi Public Works Director Todd Munger is concerned there are no private family cemeteries in Lehi, nor are any allowed. There is a Daughters of the Utah Pioneers marked pioneer cemetery, a reminder of Utah history.

In rural Utah, family cemeteries still exist. Some are still in use and have relatives recently buried there. Others are called inactive, having had no recent dead buried, such as is the case in pioneer cemeteries or settler cemeteries.

For example, when the plats were divided for pioneers in Salt Lake City in 1848, Heber C. Kimball, first counselor to LDS Church president Brigham Young, chose a block to the northeast of the city center. In addition to the homes that Heber built for his family, he constructed a mill, blacksmith shop, foundry, barns and a family cemetery.

While the buildings are gone, the 19th century family cemetery is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is one of only two such family cemeteries remaining in the city. The other is Brigham Young’s family cemetery.


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