Nearly 10 months after nationally acclaimed gay rights leader Frank Kameny died in his Washington home at the age of 86, an urn bearing his ashes continues to sit on a shelf in a storage vault in the headquarters building of D.C.’s historic Congressional Cemetery.
Cemetery officials said a dispute between Kameny’s estate and the D.C. gay charitable group Helping Our Brothers and Sisters (HOBS) over ownership rights to the plot where Kameny’s ashes were scheduled to be interred on March 2 forced the cancellation of the interment. HOBS purchased the plot earlier this year without consulting the estate, a development that the estate’s attorney says triggered the dispute.
The ashes, along with a headstone provided by the U.S. Veterans Administration recognizing Kameny’s military service during World War II and a separate marker inscribed with Kameny’s famous slogan “Gay is Good” have languished in storage at the cemetery since shortly after the interment was cancelled.
But in a surprise development on Wednesday, Congressional Cemetery’s new president, Paul Williams, disclosed in an email to the estate and HOBS that HOBS never had legal ownership rights to the Kameny plot because it failed to pay the balance on the purchase price.
“Because it had a balance, no deed was issued for the site to HOBS,” Williams said in his email.
“I propose we issue the deed directly to the estate (copy to HOBS) showing proof of ownership,” he wrote. “The estate would also need to sign an authorization of interment, which can be done at the same time. Then, we can replace the two stones in storage that we also have onsite and proceed with a private interment,” Williams wrote.
Glen Ackerman, an attorney representing the estate on behalf of Timothy Clark, whom Kameny named in his will as the main beneficiary of the estate, said the estate has accepted Williams’ proposal.
He said Williams’ disclosure that HOBS never had a deed to the cemetery plot and that the cemetery would issue the deed to the estate effectively ends the dispute by turning over the plot to Clark and the estate.
HOBS President Marvin Carter couldn’t immediately be reached Wednesday afternoon to comment on Williams’ disclosure that the cemetery planned to issue to the Kameny estate the deed to the cemetery plot.
Ackerman has said all along that the dispute centered on the estate’s desire to own the cemetery plot to ensure, among other things, that no one else would be buried or interred in the plot.
Under cemetery rules, two coffins and three urns may be buried or interred in Congressional Cemetery plots.
HOBS, which purchased the cemetery plot earlier this year from money donated by Kameny’s friends and admirers, has said it had no intention of burying others at the site.
Carter has said he and HOBS were always willing to transfer ownership of the plot to the estate. But people familiar with the dispute have said the point of contention was whether the estate should reimburse HOBS for the purchase price of the plot.
Ackerman has said Clark’s position was that donors from the LGBT community put up the money to buy the plot by giving it to HOBS, a non-profit group with tax-exempt status, so the donors could receive a tax deduction on their contribution. HOBS, in turn, made the purchase on behalf of the donors, the estate has maintained.
Meanwhile, the cemetery’s former interim director, Patrick Crowley, said he had the headstone and marker removed from the gravesite earlier this year until the estate and HOBS reached an agreement over final ownership of the plot.
Ackerman has said Clark and the estate became alarmed in February when a small group of Kameny friends announced in a press release that an interment ceremony for Kameny’s ashes would take place at the cemetery on March 3. Ackerman said organizers of the interment never consulted Clark or the estate, even though the estate had legal rights to the ashes.
Organizers of the interment ceremony abruptly cancelled the ceremony and burial the day before it was scheduled to take place on March 3, saying they did so out of “respect” for the Kameny estate. The urn bearing Kameny’s ashes has been in storage in the cemetery’s offices at 1801 E St., S.E. ever since that time.
The burial ceremony organizers, led by gay rights advocates and longtime Kameny friends Charles Francis and Bob Witeck, have said through intermediaries at the time that they invited Clark to participate in the ceremony and attempted to keep him informed of their plans. They said Ackerman refused to allow them to speak directly to Clark.
Gay activist and longtime Kameny friend Rick Rosendall, who was scheduled to speak at the Kameny interment ceremony, said it was his understanding that it was the estate’s “demand that no interment could be held until the deed to the burial plot was turned over to the estate that led to the event’s cancellation.”
Rosendall said he expressed his hope at the time that the dispute could be resolved. “That is still my hope,” he said.
Ackerman said the estate didn’t learn of the burial service until it obtained a copy of the organizers’ Feb. 13 press release announcing the ceremony.
He said the Kameny friends’ decision to organize the burial without initially consulting Clark or the estate created an atmosphere of mistrust between the two parties. Because of that, he said, Clark has insisted that ownership of the cemetery plot be transferred from HOBS to the estate without charge before the estate would consent to allowing the ashes to be buried.
Clark told the Blade in an interview earlier this year that he planned to keep half of the ashes and would donate the remaining half to be interred at Congressional Cemetery.
Francis and Witeck took initial possession of the ashes following Kameny’s death after Kameny’s sister, Edna Kameny, Kameny’s surviving next of kin, signed over power of attorney for Kameny’s remains to Witeck. Edna Kameny, who lives in New York and is in frail health, told the Blade she was pleased to entrust to Witeck and other Kameny friends the task of carrying out her brother’s stated wish to be cremated and to make funeral and memorial arrangements.
Once the details of Kameny’s will became known, including Clark’s role as personal representative or executor of the estate, Ackerman said it became clear that Clark and the estate should take possession of the ashes.
But when Clark sought to obtain possession of the ashes he said Francis told him the ashes had already been buried, a development that contributed to the mistrust between the estate and the Kameny friends organizing the burial.
Ackerman said it wasn’t until the estate saw the Feb. 13 press release announcing the interment ceremony at Congressional Cemetery that he and Clark learned the ashes had not, in fact, been buried.
When contacted on Wednesday, Francis said he had no comment on the matter, saying the dispute over the ashes is between the estate and HOBS and he has nothing to do with it.
Last week, Congressional Cemetery President Williams said he was hopeful that the dispute between the two parties would be resolved soon but said he couldn’t predict when that would happen.
“We have a little movement,” he told the Blade on July 27, saying negotiations were taking place between the estate and HOBS.
“It’s all confidential so far until everything’s signed. But I can tell you that the two parties have come to an agreement, that being the estate and Helping Our Brothers and Sisters.”
However, when reached two days later by phone, Carter told the Blade Williams had just informed him he had a proposal to resolve the dispute but that Williams did not provide any details about the proposal. Carter said Williams told him he would take steps to provide those details soon.
“HOBS has always been willing to work things out,” Carter said. “We’re not interested in continuing to own the gravesite.”
Carter told the Blade in a phone interview on July 29 that he had been out of town for the past few weeks and didn’t have a chance to check mail that may have been sent to HOBS.
“But no one from the estate has called me or emailed me about this recently,” he said. “They have my number and email address.”
Ackerman disputes this assertion, saying he and his law firm repeatedly sent written material to Carter by certified mail. He said the mail was returned to the law firm marked “refused” by recipient.