County to take 2nd try at owning a cemetery

Published 2:28 pm Friday, October 6, 2023

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The Claiborne Commission will be hashing out a resolution that, if adopted, will allow the county to create its own cemetery. First to be interred – the 19 sets of cremated remains that are inside a vault in the county mayor’s office. Some of the cremains have been housed there for nearly two decades.

Never mind that County Mayor James Estep III so much as said that counties cannot own a cemetery. Estep referred during the latest commission meeting to a discrepancy between the heading and the body of the original resolution. He said the portion of the resolution dealing with ownership of a county cemetery had been taken out of the document but that the heading was inadvertently left untouched. The heading clearly stated the proposal to claim county ownership of a cemetery.

If adopted, Resolution 2023-099 would allow the conversion into a cemetery of a portion of the property on which the emergency helipad nearby the Claiborne Medical Center in Tazewell is located.

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According to the resolution, sponsored by Commissioner David Mundy, the helipad property is not part of the lease agreement between the county and Covenant Health/Claiborne Medical Center. The resolution states that the helipad is county owned.

The document spells out a five-point procedure to create the new cemetery. First, the county will give public notice in the Claiborne Progress for four consecutive weeks listing the names and dates of death (if known) of the cremains.

Next, any family member wishing to claim a set of cremains may do so without cost to that individual.

The resolution gives permission to the County Buildings, Grounds & Personnel Committee to begin drafting a suitable plan to turn the existing helipad into a cemetery. Meanwhile, Estep is authorized to acquire permission from the court or any other authority to allow the burial of any unclaimed cremains left after loved ones have collected theirs.

The last step is the actual burial of the cremains. The county will create records that include the names of those buried and the locations of each plot.

A stipulation in the resolution may be the county’s loophole in starting up a ‘county-owned’ cemetery. The document states that no other burials will be permitted, moving forward, except for any unclaimed, cremated human remains delivered to a public official for burial at public expense.

An Opinion written in 2018, originating from the Tennessee Office of Attorney General, says that 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. According to the Opinion, state law does not require counties to cover burial, cremation or other funeral expenses for indigents.

The county had originally wanted to bury the 19 sets of cremains at the Tazewell Methodist Cemetery. However, concerns were raised, in part, when it was discovered there were 50 burial sites recorded at the state level. Only 23 sites could be found inside the cemetery grounds.

State law also allows descendants of those buried in a cemetery to claim ownership if official ownership cannot be found in county records. There was no official claim to ownership discovered, meaning the descendants have first rights to the cemetery.

This matter will be discussed during the next Claiborne Commission meeting on Oct. 19, beginning at 6:30 p.m. inside the large courtroom of the Claiborne County Courthouse.