A small Berks County cemetery is the subject of state legislative hearings, a lawsuit and emotional pleas from relatives of the deceased who object to being barred from the property.
Hazel Hamm told WGAL 8, a Lancaster-based news station, that she bought a plot next to her husband, Doug, who died in 1995. But now she has been told she can't be buried there.
"It's cruel," Hamm said.
The angry families of the deceased also drew the attention of House GOP Policy Committee, which held a hearing on the issue Tuesday night.
The testimony gathered will be used to push for a bill crafted by State Rep. Mark M. Gillen (R., Berks/Lancaster) that would guarantee "reasonable access" by the relatives of those buried in privately-owned cemeteries, according to the Reading Eagle.
After listening to residents' stories, lawmakers described the cemetery's actions as "atrocious" and "heartless insanity."
The small graveyard is set behind an 18th century stone church, which is no longer active. It is the final resting place for veterans from the War of 1812 and the Civil War, among others. Paul and Jean Dovin, a couple from Chester County, purchased the church and cemetery for $85,000 at a public auction in 2010.
When the family bought the property, they were unaware the cemetery was still operational, according to their attorney. They were looking for an office building to rent as an investment property.
"It's a tough situation for everyone," said J. Charles Gerbron Jr., the family's attorney. He said the couple searched for any ownership deeds families held for the plots, but found none.
"My clients understand [the families] feel like they got ripped off," he said.
Three years after the purchase, the Dovins announced that they would no longer honor plots sold by the previous owners. They say they do not have the proper authorization from the state to perform burials. In 2014, "Private Property" and "No Trespassing" signs started popping up around the cemetery for liability protection.
In August, the landowners filed a civil lawsuit seeking to permanently ban visitors from entering the cemetery. They also gave family members the option to exhume the bodies of their loved ones to be re-interred elsewhere.
Gerbron said the couple hopes to reach a settlement that "relieves them of any potential liability" for burials and visitors, or obtain a court order "finding that it's private property and anyone seeking to come on the property needs permission."
Staff writer Emily Babay contributed to this report.