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Categorized | Featured, News

Woman buried after controversy resolved

Post photo by J. Reed.


By Judy Reed

A Grand Rapids woman was finally laid to rest Wednesday in a family plot in Elmwood Cemetery after the City of Cedar Springs staff investigated and determined the woman should legally own the plots.

Controversy erupted on social media last week after WOODTV aired a story saying that officials in Cedar Springs would not allow Gracia Blanchard, 72, who recently died of a heart attack, to be buried in one of the family plots that her father had purchased in Elmwood Cemetery. Her longtime fiance’, Ken Jager, was interviewed by the TV station, and told the reporter that the City wouldn’t listen, that they were cold about it.

According to an email that Womack reportedly sent the station, “they had insufficient evidence to show ownership of the plot.” She did not have the deeds to the plots purchased by her father. So the bottom line was that the City needed evidence that Gracia was the sole heir and owner of the plots, otherwise they would be burying her on someone else’s property.

The Post asked for comments on how Womack resolved the issue. He sent out a press release following the investigation he undertook to determine whether Gracia was the sole heir to the plots. He would not comment specifically on her case due to privacy issues.

“This news report had multiple inaccuracies and did not provide the public with a fair, truthful or comprehensive account of the issue,” he wrote. “The City of Cedar Springs staff must daily perform the operations of the City’s government while navigating complex legal and ethical issues, big and small. Staff are guided in their actions by laws, rules and policies that are designed to prevent mistakes or unfairness in these government operations. It is the role of staff to follow rules and laws in all instances, not just when convenient or easy. As part of these duties, staff maintains the cemetery to the best of our abilities and we do so with the solemnity appropriate to the final resting place of so many friends and families.

“Because of the sensitive and personal nature of death and burial, the City government does not comment on individual circumstances regarding the cemetery and does not believe that the private affairs of individuals or families are appropriate for public consumption–even if private individuals choose to make them public. The City will continue to act with decorum and privacy when addressing any issues with the cemetery, regardless of the actions of other parties.” (You can read the rest of his statement below).

The Post then filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for documents related to the case to follow how it was resolved. At least two documents listed Gracia as the daughter of Wells and Virginia Blanchard. There was no will from her parents, but there was an Affidavit of Death and Heirship that shows that her parents died intestate and that Gracia was the sole and only heir. 

City Councilor Pam Conley also stated on social media that they have a signed statement from a first cousin who attested that Gracia was her parents’ sole heir, and that the intention was that she be buried in a plot next to her parents.

Since her parents died intestate (without a will), and she is the sole heir, it would follow that the plots belong to her, and she could legally be buried there. In her last will and testament, Gracia left her property to charities, which would include the final three open plots.

The only thing Womack would say on the matter was “My staff and I did our due diligence on this matter as we do with all of our work and after reviewing the information available to us we made what we believe to be the legally correct, ethical and appropriate decision.”

The City will be reviewing their cemetery rules at tomorrow night’s City Council meeting. Womack said they actually made that decision two months ago, before this event occurred. 

The Post asked Womack what was needed to prove ownership of a plot in the cemetery. Part of the ordinance says: “Burial space rights, plot ownership and ownership interest shall be determined by a cemetery deed, the City’s records of cemetery deeds and orders of a Court of competent jurisdiction.

“Where the ownership or ownership rights of a burial space or plot are not clear or are disputed, the sexton shall consider additional documents such as last wills and testaments, court records, birth certificates, death certificates and other persuasive documents to determine likely ownership or ownership rights.

“Where the ownership or ownership rights are not clear or are disputed, the sexton shall require a cemetery lot transfer indemnification agreement be executed as part of any burial or ownership transfer.”

Statement from City Manager Mike Womack on cemetery controversy

Recently, the City of Cedar Springs and the operation of its cemetery were the subject of a news report by WoodTV8. This story was then spread on social media and many comments were made about the City, based on this report. This news report had multiple inaccuracies and did not provide the public with a fair, truthful or comprehensive account of the issue.

The City of Cedar Springs staff must daily perform the operations of the City’s government while navigating complex legal and ethical issues, big and small. Staff are guided in their actions by laws, rules and policies that are designed to prevent mistakes or unfairness in these government operations. It is the role of staff to follow rules and laws in all instances, not just when convenient or easy. As part of these duties, staff maintains the cemetery to the best of our abilities and we do so with the solemnity appropriate to the final resting place of so many friends and families.

Because of the sensitive and personal nature of death and burial, the City government does not comment on individual circumstances regarding the cemetery and does not believe that the private affairs of individuals or families are appropriate for public consumption – even if private individuals choose to make them public. The City will continue to act with decorum and privacy when addressing any issues with the cemetery, regardless of the actions of other parties.

City staff always work to find the legal and right resolution, not the easiest or most popular resolution, and staff will seek out and weigh the best information available prior to making decisions on difficult issues and problems. In light of this, the City asks for the public’s patience and understanding while staff works to sort out complex issues that affect both private citizens and the public as a whole.

Mike Womack City Manager, City of Cedar Springs


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