Cemetery Law: Moving Chief Justice Shields

John Knight Shields served on our Supreme Court from his election in 1902 until his resignation in 1913. He became chief justice in 1910.

He was author of the majority opinion in Cooper v. State, 123 Tenn. 37, 138 S.W. 826 (1910). That case covered the notorious shootout in downtown Nashville where Edward Ward Carmack ended up dead.

See my Journal column in the November/December 1994 issue.

Chief Justice Shields also wrote about cemetery law. In Hines v. State, 126 Tenn. 1, 149 S.W. 1058 (1911), he and his colleagues held that title to the family cemetery did not pass to the deed grantee.

“The right of burial extends to all the descendants of the owner who devoted the property to burial purposes, and they may exercise it when the necessity arises. They also have the right to visit the cemetery for the purpose of repairing, beautifying, and protecting the graves and grounds around the same, and for these purposes they have the right of ingress and egress from the public road nearest the cemetery, to be exercised at seasonable times and in a reasonable manner.”

Justices Shields and Wilkes added an interesting concurring opinion to Memphis State Line Railroad Company v. Forest Hill Cemetery Company, 116 Tenn. 400, 94 S.W. 69 (1906). The full tribunal rejected the railroad’s attempt to condemn a right of way over an as yet unoccupied part of a cemetery. The final line of the concurrence is blunt and succinct: “The wheels of commerce must stop at the grave.”

Young John Shields had been born (Aug. 15, 1856) and raised in Grainger County near Bean Station. His father was a lawyer who owned more than 3,000 acres of land, an estate named Clinchdale. Family members traditionally were buried on the property. That’s what happened in 1934 when John Knight Shields and his wife Jeannette Dodson Shields died Sept. 30 and Sept. 18, respectively.

But in the next decade the Tennessee Valley Authority decided to build Cherokee Dam and flood the countryside with Cherokee Lake. Clinchdale would soon be underwater. John Knight and Jeannette Dodson Shields were disinterred and reburied at Highland Memorial Cemetery in Knoxville. I reckon commerce did not stop at the grave after all.

Today you’ll find statutory cemetery law in Title 46 of Tenn. Code Ann. Removal and reinterment are covered at §46-4-104.


Don Paine DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP.