By Ryan Helfenbein


Most successful establishments back up their sales with some sort of return policy. This policy should make it clear as to how a customer can return or exchange unwanted merchandise. It explains what items can be returned and in what timeframe over which they can be accepted.  For example, Nordstrom once had a very lenient return policy that nearly became a game to those returning. No receipt of purchase was necessary, returns could be made years after the purchase and there were rumors of them accepting items for return that weren’t even purchased at their store. Things, supposedly, got a little out of hand for this retail chain and they have since modified their policy. 

Although return policies have become much clearer in the day-to-day retail world, when it comes to the ownership of cemetery lots, things are a bit murkier. The challenge of transferring ownership of cemetery lots has become more apparent as we see new alternatives to casketed burial. In other words … what is the return policy for cemetery lots that are no longer needed?

First, understand that when a grave space is purchased, we do not own that 4’ x 8’ plot of land. We simply own the right to use it for a very specific purpose. Even though cemeteries have left us with the impression of ownership by issuing ‘deeds’, what you’ve purchased is the right to determine who can be buried in the space. If Mr. and Mrs. Smith own the lot together, either can give permission to move forward with using the grave space. When Mr. and Mrs. Smith both pass away and leave an unused grave space, ownership is then automatically transferred to their children equally. 

A few cemeteries out there offer a return policy that is not very different from that of the old Nordstrom program. Some today will accept a grave space return, regardless of when it was purchased, for the same value that it was sold for at time of purchase. For example, if Mr. and Mrs. Smith bought the use of lots in 1973 for $100 and today learn that the cemetery is now selling lots for $2,000, they could return their ownership for a whopping $100, not $2,000.  

Most cemeteries, however, have a ‘no returns’ policy firmly in place, leaving it up to family members to attempt to sell the lot privately. While there are companies out there that offer to sell lots for individuals, I strongly encourage against this route. Rather, use what is available to us today electronically – Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, online auctions and even good ol’ fashion word of mouth. Many families have had success with using these online tools to sell lots for much more than what a broker’s transaction would yield.

If you’d rather see that unused cemetery plot go to someone in need, there are many organizations that can use them. There are organizations to assist members of our community with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as Chester Wye, Arc and Chesapeake Center to name a few. These centers typically care for individuals right up to their passing and are often working with a delicate budget. Alternatives to these would be veterans’ organizations, such as a local American Legion or VFW.  Lastly, we even find some churches accepting cemetery lots as donations to assist needs of individual congregation members. 

Often when a transfer of ownership is made for lots, it can be done rather simply. Generate a document stating the transfer. Identify who the past owner was and the new owner is. See that all parties sign, and it never hurts to add a witness or two. After this document is completed, mail it certified mail to the cemetery office for their records. A receipt should then be sent to you for your records. Some cemeteries today may charge a fee to record this transfer.

While return policies make it clear how to return that unwanted garment or appliance, when it comes to your final resting place, things may not be so straightforward. Like a retail store, each cemetery can set its own return policy, but you should be aware that most cemetery’s often have a “no returns” policy. If you think that you may not be needing cemetery plots that you or a family member has already purchased, reach out to your local undertaker for guidance on how to navigate this transfer. 

Ryan, owner, supervising mortician and preplanning counselor at Lasting Tributes on Bestgate Road in Annapolis, offers area residents solutions to high-cost funerals. He can be contacted at (410) 897-4852 or [email protected].

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