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Muskegon Co. woman claims cemetery re-sold family grave sites, finds 'stranger' between mom and dad

They claim hundreds of other plots were 'reclaimed' under the same law. Cemetery officials say they did nothing wrong.

FRUITPORT CHARTER TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Imagine visiting a family member’s grave, only to discover a stranger’s headstone between your mother and father, where your own plot was supposed to be.

That’s the bizarre situation in which a Muskegon County woman—relating her story to the 13 Help Team—recently found herself. She’s urging others not to fall into the same trap.

“It’s a punch in the gut,” Debbie Brown explained. “It’s a punch in the gut and all this is our family plot. This is my spot.”

Between Debbie’s mother and father.

“Now there's a stranger here,” she indicated the marker behind her. “God rest his soul. But you know, it's ours. We want it back.”

A father with whom she shared too little time.

“My real father died when I was three,” Debbie related. “So, I really didn't know him. I have a few memories of him, but not many.”

Many of them, tied to visits to her father’s gravesite, tucked into a quiet corner of the nearby Pine Hill Cemetery.

It was there that her mother, Marilyn, in the 1950s purchased what she intended to be a family plot.

“My mom was just, she was a great person,” Debbie recalled. “Good mother and good grandmother. We all loved her very much.”

The then-empty space two on block 56, lot three—between her parents—Debbie said, was the site selected for her final resting place.

“It just meant a whole lot to me,” she said. “Even if I was married, I still wanted to be here. Between my mom and my dad.”

A means of connecting with the woman who raised her and the father whom she barely knew.

“This is what she wanted for all of us and now it's gone without our permission,” Debbie related.

Pine Hill Cemetery is operated by Fruitport Township.

When she called to confront them about the stranger she found buried beside her parents, Debbie claimed the cemetery had justified the sale using a law she said went into effect not long after her mother’s death.

“They can reclaim it if it's not being used,” she noted. “Of course, I said to them, I didn't realize there's a timeline on my life.”

A provision under the local cemetery ordinance dictates "sites sold before January 2016 and remaining vacant 40 years from the date of their sale shall revert to the township."

The law requires officials to first notify family members by first class mail to the owner’s last-known address.

“I never saw it,” she fumed. “My sister who handles all of this never got a phone call, never got a letter stating that they reclaimed it and resold it. And this is—my whole family's buried here.”

She showed 13 ON YOUR SIDE a series of affidavits signed by family members and notarized by a township employee which appeared to convey which survivors would be entitled to the remaining plots.  

The Fruitport Township Clerk, Angela Andersen, in response to an inquiry submitted by the 13 Help Team, noted that reclaiming unused grave sites was fairly common practice and that the Township had acted in accordance with pre-established guidelines.

When Debbie’s mother passed away, Andersen said the former clerk had repeatedly attempted to obtain clear direction from the family with regard to what should be done with the remaining grave sites.

Officials, Anderson claimed, had never received two of the required affidavits, which officials took to mean the family wasn’t in agreement, writing: “After multiple attempts to contact the family went unanswered, communication ended and the gravesites were reclaimed.”

The Township, Debbie said, had never made that outcome clear. An unfortunate oversight she worried could put other families in the same spot.

“They’ve already taken and resold 400 plots in the cemetery,” she said. “I wondered how many people don't know about it, just like we didn't know.”

Her sisters included. Their plots, Debbie said, had also been resold.

She wonders often what her mother might say.

“Oh, man,” Debbie began. “She'd roll over in her grave. Very proud. She was very, very proud of, of doing this for her whole family… It's not right.”

Debbie suggested Fruitport cover the cost involved in having the site’s current occupant exhumed and reinterred elsewhere, thus restoring the family plot.

Township officials later clarified that of the more than 400 plots eligible for reclamation, several hundred had remained with their original owners, who submitted the required documentation. More than 200, in the end, were reclaimed by the Township and sold again.

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