Will the county be burying bodies?

Published 11:41 am Wednesday, September 13, 2023

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Claiborne County could very well be in the business of burying bodies if a resolution is adopted during the next Claiborne Commission meeting. In particular, some 19 cremated remains currently lodged in a vault inside the county mayor’s office could see dirt in the near future. More than enough time has elapsed for the securing of a final resting place for the cremains. Many have been languishing inside the vault dating back to former Claiborne County Mayor Joe Tyler Duncan’s days in office. Duncan was elected in 2006.

The county started unofficially collecting the remains when it was left ‘holding the bag’ as the dearly departed were never claimed by loved ones. One or two family members have since come forward to take ownership but have been reportedly turned away until the cremation costs initially paid by the county are reimbursed in full.

Resolution 2023-092, if adopted, would allow the county to provide the final resting place at the Tazewell Methodist Cemetery, located behind the Claiborne County Courthouse. According to the resolution, sponsored by Claiborne Commissioner Whitt Shuford, the county has maintained the cemetery for over 30 years.

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The resolution also calls for County Attorney James Estep III to file a Complaint in Chancery Court to order the burials. According to the resolution, the county would then be responsible for providing maintenance of records identifying the locations, if available, and identities of the buried bodies.

Once adopted, the resolution would also give the county authorization moving forward to bury paupers at the cemetery.

The question of a county’s responsibility to provide funeral expenses for paupers was answered in a 2018 Opinion originating from the Tennessee Office of the Attorney General.

“State law requires only that each county cover the expenses, when necessary, for the burial or cremation of unclaimed bodies by the coroner or medical examiner,” reads the Opinion, in part.

State law, according to the Opinion, does not require counties to cover burial, cremation or other funeral expenses for indigents (paupers).

According to the Office of the Tennessee Comptroller, every cemetery is owned by someone regardless of whether the owner’s name is listed in the records. Each county is required to know the owners of all known cemeteries within its jurisdiction.

The question becomes, if there is no owner of record for the Tazewell Methodist Cemetery, does ownership default to the descendants of those buried there, as is the general opinion?

A thorough search by the Claiborne County Register of Deeds has not unearthed the person or persons who officially claim the cemetery.

The question then becomes, can the county take ownership of the cemetery because it kept the grounds for a number of years? Or do the descendants of those buried there own the cemetery?

Interestingly, nowhere in the body of the resolution is there mention of the county actually taking ownership of the cemetery even though the title of the document clearly states the objective. The body of the document mentions only that the county has maintained the grounds of the cemetery and that Chancery Court could authorize the burial there of the cremated remains.

This issue is on the agenda for the next Claiborne Commission meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 18 inside the large courtroom of the Claiborne County Courthouse.