STEVENSON, Alabama (Reuters) - Jim Davis leaves no doubt about his willingness to do whatever it takes to honor his wife’s dying wish.
Shortly before she died in April 2009 at the age of 66, Patsy Davis let it be known she wanted to be buried in the yard of the rural northeastern Alabama house where the couple raised their five children.
So that’s exactly where Jim Davis laid his wife of “48 years, one month and four days” to rest, even though the city council in Stevenson denied him permission to do it.
Now the 73-year-old former Marine is battling the city in an unusual legal case that pits the devoted widower against officials concerned about citizen complaints and the long-term maintenance of the plot. The stakes of the case, now headed for the Alabama Court of Appeals, are high after a local judge ordered Patsy Davis’ remains be exhumed.
“This grave site is my piece of America,” Jim Davis said as he stood beside the flower-adorned plot earlier this week. “I don’t feel any different fighting for it than I felt about fighting for my country and I was willing to die for that.”
Davis’ house sits within the city limits of Stevenson, a town of 2,000 residents located close to the Tennessee and Georgia borders.
After his wife died, Davis picked out a spot in the front yard and applied to the county health department for the necessary approval. The department ran hydrological tests as required by law and granted his request.
Davis then sought permission from the city council. The council said no.
Davis said he’s the kind of person who doesn’t “take no for an answer.” One morning soon after the council’s refusal, he rented a backhoe and dug the plot anyway.
City officials sued. Mayor Rickey Steele said council members worried that the city eventually could become responsible for the expense involved in caring for Patsy Davis’ resting spot.
“The council’s main concern was perpetual care,” he said in a telephone interview. “State law says the council has the right to say no and that’s what they did.”
But Davis’ lawyer says state law also supports his client’s view, which they will present to the Alabama appeals court by an August 17 deadline.
“Mr. Davis has a family burial plot, not a cemetery. State law allows for burying your relatives on your homestead,” attorney Timothy Pittman said. “Even assuming it’s a cemetery, which it’s not, the city of Stevenson has never chosen to enact a cemetery ordinance.”
An official with the Alabama Department of Public Health, which oversees such matters, said family burial plots are common in Alabama and typically are legal on private property in the state.
The department “has long held the position that a family burial plot on private property is not considered a cemetery unless the county or municipality has an ordinance” banning one, said Sherry Bradley, the deputy director of the department’s bureau of environmental services.
Bradley said the bureau regularly gets questions about the legality of such sites, as well as more esoteric requests from residents. Her bureau has been asked whether it is legal to send a loved one’s remains sailing over water and set afire in a so-called “Viking burial,” or if a corpse can be left in the sun to desiccate in an “Indian burial.”
“Absolutely not,” she said of both methods. Besides, she noted, the latter process likely wouldn’t work in Alabama “given the humidity.”
Bradley said the lawsuit involving the Davis plot is unusual. She couldn’t recall similar legal action.
Local residents seem to have mixed feelings. Roy Yarber, who has lived next door to Davis for the past 10 years, said the grave site doesn’t bother him.
“That was the woman’s last wishes and I have no problem with it,” Yarber said. “I’ve never understood what the big stink is.”
“I feel for the guy, I really do,” said Angie Rich, a clerk at a gas station and convenience store. “But I think he’s going to have a hard time if he tries to sell that house with a body in the front yard.”
Davis said he has no such intention. “I have five children, 15 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, with four more on the way. My house and my property will be passed down forever.”
Davis said he will continue fighting to “let Patsy rest in peace,” as a large sign he erected on his property demands.
He plans to be buried beside his wife. The granite stone marking Patsy Davis’ grave is already engraved with his name and awaits only one final, inevitable date.
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Andre Grenon