The group assembled to address the ongoing dispute between the church and the Town of Harwich regarding the future of our Memorial Garden (Bob Buchanan, Lynn Carver, Mary Montgomery, and myself) has been hard at work. As part of our ongoing efforts, and with prior approval of the Cabinet, we recently hired Barbara Huggins, a partner in the law firm of Huggins and Witten, with offices in Duxbury and Newton, to help us navigate the legal waters surrounding the Garden.
Barbara came down to the Cape to meet with us several weeks ago and we were immediately impressed with her intelligence, knowledge, and passionate concern for the church’s situation. (She even worked during part of the 90’s in the Land Court in Boston!) The firm’s specialty is municipal law (precisely what we needed) and they even serve as town counsel to several municipalities throughout the state.
As it stands, in late October, First Church submitted a written proposal to the Cemetery Commission requesting that the Memorial Garden be allowed to remain in its current location, with the caveat that no further interments of cremains would take place in the “excluded areas,” those areas within the Garden where cremains lie over unmarked, preexisting graves. We also proposed erecting a suitable monument or marker to honor those buried beneath the Garden.
At their December meeting, the Cemetery Commission rejected our proposal. Currently they are in the process of drafting a counterproposal that we have every reason to believe will involve moving the Garden to a cite in the southwest corner of the cemetery, the very spot where the first meeting house stood and where there are no known graves.
We believe, as does Barbara, that our proposal is both fair and equitable, particularly given that the Cemetery Commission approved the construction of the Garden in December of 1988 with the knowledge that it would be built over “known, unmarked graves.” It is Barbara’s informed opinion as well that the town’s desire to disinter our cremains and relocate them elsewhere is an altogether extreme remedy in rectifying the situation.
Two issues are paramount. First, does the current Memorial Garden violate any state law? As far as we know, this is not at all clear, though the town assumes otherwise. (As we understand it, the church did seek legal advice in 1988-9, before the Garden was built, and earnestly believed that no law was being breached.)
Secondly, the ownership of the cemetery, despite a Land Court decision in the mid-60s granting ownership to the town, remains a hotly contested issue. As we understand it, the court used town assessor records as the sole basis for their decision, something we’ve come to learn is highly inordinate. Whether we contest the court’s questionable ruling remains uncertain.
In conclusion, and most importantly, we thank each of you for your ongoing prayers and support as we seek to address this most difficult and emotionally taxing situation.
Grace and peace,
Thomas C. Leinbach, Pastor