Over the years, Mineral County Sheriff Ernie Ornelas has heard from several people curious about burying relatives on their property.
But until December, all of those queries came before the fact.
The call he got last month concerned a person who’d already been buried. To complicate matters, the person had been interred on state, not private, land.
“In this particular case,” said Ornelas, “they didn’t quite go through the hoops.”
Not that there are many hoops to go through. When it comes to private burials, Montana law is downright minimalist.
Basically, said Missoula County Sheriff’s Detective Jason Johnson, “you can do it.” There are forms to fill out, in triplicate. Often, local ordinances – say, concerning the protection of water sources – come into play. And it’s a good idea to notify the county sheriff, whose office also serves as the coroner’s office, to verify that there’s nothing suspicious about the death.
Unfortunately, none of that was done in December.
Ornelas didn’t release the name of the family involved, but said the family had “a couple of cabin leases” on Fish Creek. One of the family members had been ill with cancer for some time. Her death, he said, was expected, and a physician later signed a death certificate.
But after she was buried, some family members contacted his office.
“To be honest, there were some of the siblings who didn’t like the way Dad handled this, but in reality there was nothing illegal,” he said. “… It proved a little bit gnarly only because it involved DNRC.”
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation threw the ball back into the county’s court.
“We’re not doing anything at this point,” said DNRC spokesman John Grassy. “We’re the landowner but what happens next and how this is ultimately resolved is up to them” – that is, Mineral County.
Ornelas said Friday he’s awaiting feedback from County Attorney Marcia Boris. She was out of the office and could not be reached for comment.
“DNRC was under the impression the body was to be exhumed and we would be paying for it,” Ornelas said. But the county would exhume the body only if a death investigation were necessary – “and it’s not.”
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“The only question (remaining),” he said, “is if it’s moved, who’s going to incur the costs?”
In St. Ignatius, the Krantz family has been burying relatives in a family plot since 1942.
“Back years ago, it was just common practice to bury your relatives on the (family’s) ground,” said Dennis Krantz, who now owns the land.
Krantz said he didn’t know of any particular regulations. In rural areas like St. Ignatius, there are few. There’s a Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services form authorizing removal, transportation and disposition of a body, to be signed by a coroner, a mortician, the attending physician or the person designated by a physician.
Missoula City-County Health Department regulations permit burials on unzoned rural private property.
Misty Echevarria, a funeral director with Garden City Funeral Home in Missoula, said people seeking to bury someone on their property also must supply GPS coordinates that verify the burial will be a certain distance from open running water or a water source such as a well.
County regulations state burial plots must be at least 100 feet from wells, bodies of water or agricultural uses.
Home burials aren’t allowed within the city limits, Echevarria said.
“Generally, the decedent would still need to come through a funeral home,” she said, adding that Garden City gets occasional requests about such burials.
Ornelas said most of the queries to his office about private burials come from people who don’t want to use a funeral home. If a body has not been embalmed, the person must be buried within 48 hours of death, said Ornelas.
Krantz, whose family has the cemetery near St. Ignatius, said that so far, Montana’s relaxed system seems to be working just fine.
“I haven’t had to go out and dig up any of my relatives,” he said.