I-Team: Cemetery mixup has lawmakers calling for change

Buffalo man mistakenly buried in a potter's field
Barbara and Bill Sherman
Posted at 9:15 AM, Apr 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-29 11:12:42-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Barbara and Bill Sherman took a sacred oath: "in sickness and health, until death do us part."

But in life after death, it's those still living — keeping them apart.

Barb's brother Jim Saxer wants to see his brother-in-law buried where he belongs, at Mount Olivet Cemetary in Tonawanda next to his bride.

"I mean his name is on the tombstone already without the dates," said Jim Saxer.

But Bill isn't buried there.

Instead, he's buried in a potter's field with the poor and unclaimed at Lakeside Cemetery in Hamburg.

"We can’t rest easily," Saxer said. "And I know, we think he’s not at rest either because this is not what he wanted."

A muddy bureaucratic mess stands in his family's way.

Buried before public notice

Bill died in January, but no one really knew.

"After my sister passed away we didn’t see him as much, but we’d reach out a bit here and there and he’d respond. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t. But that’s okay, that was Bill," Saxer added.

It wasn't until February that Saxer learned of Bill's death. He was reading the obituaries in the Sunday paper when he saw the name William Sherman of Buffalo listed.

Bill died a month earlier, but by then it was too late for a proper burial where he actually belongs. Bill had already been buried in Erie County's graveyard.

"They say that they give two weeks to find the next of kin, and if they can’t, they turn it over to the mortuary - funeral home company, and then they take care of burying him," said Saxer.

But Bill died on Jan. 19 and the obituary wasn't printed until a month after his death.

Those two weeks passed and no relatives even knew Bill died.

Erie County paperwork obtained by the I-Team shows the two-week timeline has been used only since Dec. 2020, due to the pandemic causing limited space in the morgue.

Prior to the pandemic, cases like this were usually cleared in up to 30 days.

"This could have been avoided if the name had been published in the newspaper prior to the burial," said Erie County Legislator Christopher Greene.

Greene sent a letter to the commissioner for the Erie County Department of Social Services when Saxer reached out to his office — and the I-Team got involved.

"Their primary goal is to have their relative, Mr. Sherman, exhumed and reburied in his family burial plot next to his late wife. Unfortunately, they have no legal right to make this request because the failure to identify a proper next of kin put the estate of Mr. Sherman under the control of the Erie County Public Advocate."

Greene believes the public advocate is just doing the job by law, but says an exception should be made.

"At this point, the county has got to help, to intervene, to loosen up the bounds of her capabilities," said Greene.

In its response to Greene's letter, the county wrote, "I am instructing my staff to work with the Erie County Public Administrator to begin the exhumation process at Departmental expense..."

The county claims it did it's due diligence in finding next-of-kin, searching databases and using Google to find information about him.

But the county sent a certified letter to Barbara Sherman, claiming it didn't know she had been buried for almost two decades.

Erie County has possession of those records.

"That's probably the biggest blunder we've made," Greene added.

Could this happen again?

Greene questions if DNA evidence could be used to identify next of kin, making sure this doesn't happen again.

"That's the most important thing," said Greene. "The failure stood with us and we're the ones that need to correct it."

Moving Bill Sherman from Block F at Lakeside Cemetery to his pre-death designated plot rests in the county's control.

"We want him buried where he belongs," Sherman said. "So we can all rest easy, especially him because this is what he wanted."

That's something his brother-in-law is hopeful will happen soon, so they can have a proper burial for a man who should have had one — if not for this grave error.