State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, testified before the state Senate Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday in favor of his bill allowing family burials on privately owned land. Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1037 was passed unanimously out of the state House in late February.
“What this bill does is restore in our state law one of the great traditions of living in the west, which is the ability of landowners to have private family burial plots on their land,” Walsh said.
Walsh told the committee his bill takes into account issues surrounding environmental setbacks and public rights of way. He also said the proposal limits the size of the burial plot to 10% or less of the total lot size and would prevent burial sites allowed under the proposal from receiving tax exemptions.
“You can’t use the family burial plot as a clever loophole to try to get a tax exemption. You have got to pay tax on the property where the plot exists,” Walsh said.
While testifying, Walsh specifically mentioned Native American tribes as being interested in the bill, telling the committee his proposal is consistent with tribal traditions regarding family burial.
“It really is something that all Washingtonians and our history and our traditions have liked about this state,” Walsh said. “I think it is a good policy and it does restore one of the great reasons to live in Washington.”
According to Walsh, an amendment was added to the bill prior to passing the House that requires people to report family burials on private property to the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. He added that at the time the bill passed the House, he was of the understanding the Department of Archaeology was supportive of the amendment, though he said in the weeks since, the department has expressed concerns. Walsh told the committee he suggests pushing back the timeline for the bill and delaying the date it would go into effect so the Department of Archaeology can figure out how to keep a database. Walsh told the committee he is working on such an amendment and intends to provide it to senators. During questioning, state Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, offered to sponsor Walsh’s amendment once it was prepared.
Sylvia Miller, the vice chair of the Puyallup Tribe, testified before the committee in favor of the bill after Walsh finished speaking. Miller told the committee she supports the proposal in part because her tribe had grown from about 600 people to about 6,000 in the last 30 years. As her tribe has grown, there’s been a problem with finding space for burials.
“With that growth, there’s going to be the passing of those individuals, and the traditions that we have had have been taught to us for a long time,” Miller said. “Cremation is not one of them.”
According to Miller, cemeteries on Puyallup lands are now so full the tribe have no choice but to cremate their deceased.
She told the committee tribal members have buried their family members in their backyards because of lack of room, pointing to industrial development in the area as a cause of land scarcity.
“It hurts that we would even have to wait another year for this bill to pass. I really have to stress the fact (of) how important it is to us that this bill be passed now because our elders have buried their children in some of these lots in their backyards and if they are removed from there it would really sadden the hearts of our people,” Miller told the committee. “We have been punished enough.”
She also added other Washington tribes have expressed similar feelings around current burial laws.
Bonnie Bizzell, from the People’s Memorial Association, voiced support for the bill. Bizzell said her association advocates for providing people with greater consumer choice when it comes to the disposal of human remains. According to Bizzell, Walsh’s proposal would bring Washington in line with 47 other states.
Julie Seitz, a cemetery consumer advocate, voiced opposition to ESHB 1037. Seitz told the committee she felt “blindsided” by the bill and criticized the legislation for a lack of protection for human remains and oversight. She added that leaving oversight to local governments doesn’t work. Seitz commended Walsh’s interest in cemetery law but said she wants more work done before a bill is passed.
Allyson Brooks, the director of the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, was the last person to testify before the committee. Brooks said she was opposed to the current bill but said she recognized current laws need to be updated, telling the committee her department has been working on developing a proposal to update state cemetery laws for a year.
“We know they’re out of date. We know the laws aren’t anywhere near what is happening right now and that the whole cemetery business law needs updating,” Brooks said.
According to Brooks, the department is working to address what she called “major issues” with family burials.
One issue Brooks discussed was access, telling the committee descendents would not be able to visit the grave sites of their ancestors without an easement.
Another issue Brooks raised concerns over was care and maintenance. Brooks told the committee problems could arise if privately held land containing gravesites were sold to a new owner and care for the graves was reduced.
“The lack of regulatory oversight is really problematic,” Brooks said.
Brooks also told the committee Walsh’s bill failed to impose penalties if a death weren’t reported. Brooks would later defer when asked what she thought the penalty should be for failing to report a burial.
“I think it’s an important question. How do we get people to do the notification?” Brooks said, adding that some people may not even know they are required to provide notification.
Brooks also said her department is working with native tribes while developing a final proposal.
“We still plan on working on these issues, there’s a lot to resolve,” Brooks said.
Another requirement Brooks said she wanted was for burials to be reported to local governments so the existence of the cemeteries could be listed on property titles.
She also raised concerns about the generality of the bill, explaining to the committee that if someone had enough land they could bury a relative on their property in Seattle, Spokane or Tacoma.
“We’re not trying to harm people, we’re trying to make sure that when burials go in they are protected,” Brooks said.