Man's Grave Occupied By Stranger; Offered $15 Refund

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Posted on August 18, 2017 by

By Chris ChmuraJoe Rojas and Christine Roher for NBC Bay Area

John Wilson, 74, plans to be buried in Benicia's city cemetery, beside his parents.

“My dad said, ‘It’s got a really nice view of the Bay.’”


James and Madge Wilson bought two plots back in 1955. They’re buried together in plot 36a., leaving plot 36b for John. Lately, John’s been thinking about the end of his life.

“The older we get, the more we think about death,” he said. So, he began to get his affairs in order about a year ago. That’s when the city cemetery delivered unexpected news.

Bay Area man find outs his gravesite is occupied

Click here to watch the video.

“I said, ‘There’s supposed to be an empty grave spot.’ And they said, ‘No, it’s not. There’s another James R. Wilson there.’ And I said, ‘Well, he’s not related to us. I don’t know who he is but he shouldn’t be there.”

John couldn’t believe it.

He says for nearly a year, the city insisted the unmarked grave next to his parents was occupied by a stranger who shared the same last name.   

 “I don’t think I even heard an apology,” he said.

John said the cemetery superintendent ultimately offered a refund for the blunder.

“He said, ‘John the best we can do for you is give you $15 back.’”

Yes, $15.

Benicia City Cemetery bylaws outline a “right to correct errors” with a refund.

John showed NBC Bay Area his parents’ receipt from 1955. They paid $30 for two plots. So, John is due $15.

“A $15 refund,” he scoffed. “I said, ‘what about inflation?’”

Prices have risen since 1955.

  • A haircut is no longer $1.42.
  • Gas is no longer 29 cents a gallon.
  • A visit to the doctor is no longer $3.41
  • And a new burial plot here is no longer $15 dollars.... It’s as much as $1,500 dollars.

“That’s why I called you,” he told NBC Bay Area. “Maybe if they’re on TV that might change their attitude a little bit.”  

We wrote the city.

And within days, john said he was offered a plot elsewhere in the cemetery at no charge.

But then, the following day, a cemetery supervisor called back to say john’s plot next to mom and dad was not occupied, after all.

“I’d like to be able to believe him,” Wilson said.” He told me the other day, ‘it’s just a big mistake there’s really an empty plot there for you. It’s yours when you want it.’ I said, ‘Well how come for a year I’ve heard that there’s someone buried there named James Wilson?’“

By e-mail, a city project manager confirmed the cemetery had made a mistake.  

He said, “We have resolved this issue.”

We asked the City of Benicia for an interview, but weren’t granted one.

“You make a mistake like that, you don’t want to talk about it,” Wilson said.

Funeral Planner Andrew Sparrer at Bay Area Mortuary Andrew Sparrer applauded Wilson for trying to put his funeral plans on paper early.

“It’s taboo to talk about death and dying,” Sparrer said. “Everyone should have a copy of [your plan], and keep it in a safe place.”

Today’s typical funeral costs between $7,000 and $10,000.

Sparrer says pre-planning your final wishes can cut expenses and reduce the stress families face when they are forced to guess the dearly departed’s desires.

“There are times when the whole family’s got to leave and have a little meeting and come back when they come to agreement,” Sparrer said.

As for John, he’s still not 100 percent sure if plot 36b is empty or occupied.

“If they’re willing, give me a shovel. I’ll dig it up,” he joked.

John’s final request of the cemetery superintendent is a letter saying plot 36b is empty.

“Put it on paper -- that it’s legally mine, then that might make me happy,” he said. “Maybe an apology, too.”

We got john that letter: two important sentences for his funeral file. But zero apology.

 “I appreciate you going through all the time to check everything out for me,” he said.

John’s story is proof: planning a funeral is no small undertaking. The Federal Trade Commission’s checklist for consumers includes about two dozen different decisions to make, ideally while you’re still alive.

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