Montcalm Township looks to correct burial mistake

By Kelli Ameling • Last Updated 7:48 pm on Thursday, September 22, 2011

Terry Witzel stands looking at her mother’s burial site as she talks about her mother being buried in the wrong plot in East Montcalm Cemetery on Thursday.

MONTCALM TOWNSHIP – A family wants their long-lost mother to rest in peace.
That may be difficult now that Montcalm Township officials have realized the township made a mistake 14 years ago, burying Helen Peer in the wrong plot.

Township Clerk Carol Rosebrook said Peer is buried in a plot at East Montcalm Cemetery on M-91 that was purchased by members of the Lepley family in the 1970s.

The Lepleys’ plot is almost halfway across the cemetery from where Peer was supposed to be buried.

“We don’t know how this happened,” Rosebrook said.

The disagreement likely will end up in court.

“We have to act and act on the side of the Lepleys,” township Supervisor Michael Adams, acknowledging the township’s mistake. “It’s a sad situation all the way around.”

Poor documentation and communication

Rosebrook said the sales were not properly documented. The person the township board believes was the cemetery sexton when Peer was buried has died, so they are unable to get better answers for either family.

Rosebrook said the Lepley family came to the township sometime between 2004 and 2008 to address the problem.

Peer’s daughter, Terry Witzel, questioned why the township didn’t notify family members when the mistake first was discovered.

“We were told it was put on the backburner,” Witzel said.

Rosebrook said board members were unable to investigate the problem fully right away because of other issues in the township at the time.

Correct diagram?

According to documents at the township hall, when a granddaughter of Marjorie Lepley passed away, Lepley purchased plots next to the granddaughter for herself and other family members.

The Lepley family purchased four plots, which is where the granddaughter is currently buried. The plots are located toward the middle of the southern section in the cemetery.

In the 1980s, a great-grandson of Peer passed away. According to Deputy Clerk Cody Hole, Peer wanted to be buried next to her great-grandson and have plots available for other family members next to him.

Mistakenly, however, Peer was buried next to the Lepleys’ granddaughter in the middle of the Lepleys’ four plots.

The great-grandson’s plot and where Peer is supposed to be buried, according to the township, is in the back of the southern section several rows away from she was buried.

At the bottom of a page related to the burial documents for the great-grandson, four squares were hand-drawn on a diagram. One squares has the great-grandson’s name, one has Peer’s and the remaining two have Witzel’s and her husband’s name.

This information is what led the township to believe Peer wanted to be buried next to the great-grandson. However, the township has no documentation showing that Peer or Witzel purchased four plots.

Witzel disagreed with Hole and said her mother never wanted to be buried next to the great-grandson.

“I bought the plot” for the great-grandson, Witzel said. “My mother had nothing to do with it.”

She noted other family members took care of Peer’s funeral arrangements a year prior to her passing and she made no mention of wishing to be buried next to the child. The family only purchased one plot when Peer died and did not request that it be located next to or near the great-grandson’s grave.

Witzel was unaware of the diagram and does not understand why it was there when only one plot was purchased for Peer.

Rosebrook couldn’t confirm where the diagram came from. She said it could have been drawn sometime after the child’s death by a township worker or Peer could have visited the Township Hall at a later date to provide it.

Rosebrook said all the township knows is what is on file.

“I really don’t know what happened in the past,” Rosebrook said. “We have to go by our records and the records show (Peer) is in the wrong spot.”

Rosebrook said the township still wants to honor both families’ wishes at no charge, moving Peer’s body to the correct place and giving the family the plots next to it.

Communication continues

At Wednesday’s township meeting, Rosebrook told the board the Michigan Municipal League advised her not to make a decision based on communication with the families thus far because all of Peer’s children have not responded.

The township has yet to make contact with Peer’s son about the situation. Rosebrook said a phone number she had received to contact the son is disconnected.

The board voted at Wednesday’s meeting to find addresses for all five of the children and formally mail letters to each of them. Adams said time is of the essence as winter approaches, making digging much more difficult.

“We have to move as fast as we can before the ground freezes,” he said.

Lawsuit coming?

Currently, Witzel said her family does not want their mother to be moved and wants her to rest in peace.

“It’s the township’s fault. Why should my mother have to suffer?” Witzel said.

As for the township offering to give the family burial spots next to Peer’s great-grandson if she is moved, Witzel said they are not needed. The family already has plans to be buried at other cemeteries.

Witzel realizes the disagreement likely will end up in court, but that does not matter to her because she is fighting for her mother.

“I don’t give up easy,” Witzel said.

Rosebrook said the township is taking full responsibility for the mistake.

“We know it’s our error and not anyone else’s,” she said. “We are just trying to fix the error.”

The township is working on implementing a computer system for the future that will reduce the chances for a mistake like this.

Rosebrook feels for the family and understands it is an emotion situation.

“It’s hard,” she said. “If we didn’t need to, we wouldn’t ask. All I can do is apologize.”

If an agreement is not made between Peer’s children and the township, the situation will have to be settled in court.

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