Families: Ancestors may be buried beneath purchased plot

Posted at 10:47 PM, Aug 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-27 22:47:50-04

IONIA COUNTY, Mich. -- Woodard Lake Cemetery in Ronald Township holds special meaning for Gerald Stedman. Generations of Stedmans are buried there with their headstones spread throughout. So when it came time for end of life planning, he didn't have to deliberate on his final resting place.

"Three years ago, my wife was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer which we were told you don't survive. So in a hurry we wanted to get our burial plot," Stedman explained.

But after making the costly purchase for the plot, cement slab installation, and a headstone, he said problems began.

Stedman said, "Once they put that cement there, a gentleman — Mr. Pierce — called the president of the cemetery and told him that they had put that right on top of his ancestors."​

John Pierce, who also has generations of family members buried in the cemetery, believes his great-great grandfather Adrial Pierce may be resting beneath Stedman's plot.

"September 21st, 1900, A. Pierce bought a lot," Pierce held a copy of the original purchase certificate.

The gentleman said many old graves are unmarked. Stedman said he told township clerk Arthur Pelon he would move the cement slab himself and cover the cost, if they assign him a new plot.

"What they're saying is, 'Prove there's somebody's down there,' and I'm saying, 'Prove that they aren't,'" Stedman explained.

He added, "I have tried to meet with the sexton and president of the cemetery, and right from the beginning I said I just want a meeting. I want you to show me how you came up with this spot."

Pierce said, "I'd just like to get it resolved."

He believes a burial plot map will provide some guidance.

Pierce said, "They have an old map. I've seen it before when Mr. Monger was the sexton, but any time somebody asks them and other friends ask even to see if they can get to look at it, and they'll just say it's just an old map. It doesn't mean anything."

Stedman said, "I'm the party caught in the middle, and all I'm trying to do is resolve this to the benefit of everybody."

He added, "All we want is to take that cement and to move it back seven feet and everybody's fine."

FOX 17 filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the township for a burial plot map. Township clerk Arthur Pelon, who also oversees the cemetery as the sexton, replied and said that map doesn't exist.

When FOX 17 paid him a visit, Pelon did present a hand-drawn map that doesn't have Adrial Pierce's name on it. Pelon claimed that Adrial Pierce is buried elsewhere in the cemetery around other unmarked graves.

The clerk didn't want to go on camera but did do a demonstration for FOX 17 at the gravesite. Pelon took a long rod and poked it several feet into the plot in question. He was trying to demonstrate that no one is buried in that space. In response to hearing of the demonstration, Stedman said bones and a wooden casket from 1900 will have decayed by now.

Stedman mentioned ground-penetrating radar (GPR) as a way to find out if the dirt has ever been disturbed. One estimate FOX 17 received for GPR services is $2,000.