STEVENSON, Ala. — James Davis figures that his first mistake was asking permission. If a man promises his wife he will bury her in the front yard, then he should just do so.
But ever since Davis granted his dying wife’s wish by laying her to rest just off his front porch, he and the city of Stevenson have been at odds.
From City Hall to the courts, the government of this little railroad town in southern Appalachia has tried to convince Davis that a person who lives in a town cannot just set up a cemetery anywhere he likes. On Oct. 11, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed a judge’s decision saying as much.
But Davis, 74, is not inclined to back down.
“They’re waiting on me to die,” he said early last week, standing on the porch of the log house he built and looking out over his lawn, which along with the grave features an outhouse and a large sign demanding that his wife be allowed to rest in peace. “I am not digging her up.”
Alabama, like most states, has no state law against burying someone on private property, and family graves are not all that rare in the country. Sherry Bradley, the deputy director of environmental services for the state Department of Public Health, said people asked her about private burial several times a week.
“You wouldn’t believe the calls I get,” she said, mentioning one woman who wanted to stage a “Viking burial” by putting her deceased husband in a boat and setting it on fire. (“The answer to that one was no,” she said.)
While private burials are permitted in rural areas, cities and towns often have ordinances governing the burials, to which the state defers. Stevenson does not have such an ordinance, although Joshua Slocum, the director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog group based in Vermont, said this was not atypical. Many cities lack burial ordinances because the issue of private burial hardly ever comes up, he said.
“It’s usually the case that people don’t ask to be buried in city limits,” Slocum said.
Davis and his wife, Patsy, grew up in Dayton, Tenn., having met when she was 7 and he was 11. She was a teenager when he asked her to accompany him to a strawberry festival.
“We went on that one date, and it was me and her the rest of the time,” he said.
They were married for 48 years and had five children.
In her later years, Patsy Davis came down with an array of painful ailments, including crippling arthritis, and James Davis retired from his job as an electrical worker to take care of her. Eventually, the doctors said that extending her life would only make it more painful. She died in April 2009, and ever since he has slept in his easy chair, finding the bedroom depressing.
Shortly before her death, James Davis said, his wife expressed her wish to be buried in the yard of the house where they had spent three decades together. So he went to work, getting approval from the county’s Health Department and pressing the City Council for a permit.
The council told Davis that he had not completed the necessary paperwork, and after two meetings, it voted to deny his request, speaking about its potential effect on property values and about who would take care of it in perpetuity. (The tombstone has Davis’ name beside his wife’s, and he planned to end up in the yard as well.) Parker Edmiston, the city attorney, said he was concerned about setting a precedent.
“If you allow it for Mr. Davis, you allow it for Ms. Adams, Mr. Jones and everyone else,” Edmiston said, adding that this was the most protracted litigation in the city since a case a few years ago involving something about pigs.
According to court filings, Davis declared to the City Council members that he would sue and take his case to the state Supreme Court if necessary. But instead, he just decided to ignore them.
“I just got a backhoe and went ahead,” Davis said, later arguing that the lack of a specific burial ordinance meant that they had no right to stop him.
He installed a vault, the funeral home put his wife in the coffin, and on a Saturday morning 10 days after the City Council vote, Patsy Davis was laid to rest before a gathering of family members.
Lawsuit and notoriety
The city sued James Davis a month later.
Davis waged the legal fight for the next four years, running up thousands of dollars in legal fees. At one point, he even ran for mayor but lost. In 2012, a Circuit Court judge found in favor of the city and ordered Davis to move his wife’s remains to a “properly licensed and approved cemetery.” But the grave remained undisturbed as the case made it through the appeals process.
The neighbors, although admitting that it is a little weird, have gotten used to the grave site up the road.
“It’s his wife,” said Margaret Garner, 56. “He’s got the right.”
But at least according to the courts, he does not.
Over the weekend, after his denial at the Supreme Court had attracted national attention, he was contacted by twin brothers from Southern California: one a screenwriter, the other the director of an organization dedicated to producing a new translation of the Bible.
The brothers encouraged Davis to protect his grave site by turning his house into a church, and they even created a website advertising the brand-new Stevenson Bible Church, a “family-oriented Bible-believing church: baptisms, weddings, on-site cemetery.” Services were scheduled for every Sunday morning at 10, and Davis was referred to as the pastor.
He was not sold on the idea.
On Friday, Davis was back in court, and while he warned of “an incident” if the city came onto his property, he suggested a compromise: He would dig up the coffin, cremate his wife’s remains and put the urn with her ashes back in the grave.
In her dying days, Patsy Davis had said she was afraid of cremation, her husband said. But a lot of time has passed since then.
“If she saw herself as she is now, I know she would not mind,” he said.
Edmiston acknowledged that there was no law against tombstones or the placement of ashes, but he insisted that the coffin and the vault be removed. So if Davis fully complies with the city’s order, the yard will end up looking exactly as it does now, only with an urn rather than a coffin underneath.
This may raise the question as to what the whole fight was about. But Davis has no doubts.
“There was never any couple in love like us,” he said. “We was meant to be together.”