Judge John Hodgman Episode 137: Six Feet Plunder


Friends Brittany and Reg bring their case before the court. On an amble through a cemetery after Christmas, Brittany found hundreds of potted Christmas trees left graveside. She saw that they weren't being cared for, and hoping to save them from the trash, took the trees and replanted them elsewhere. Her friend Reg says this is tantamount to grave-robbing since it was done without permission. He insists that Brittany was wrong to take the trees, no matter her intention. Who's right? Who's wrong?

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Also, thanks to Paul Ruh for suggesting this week's case name! To suggest a title for a future episode, like us on Facebook at Judge John Hodgman! We regularly put a call for submissions.



I loved this episode. While I

I loved this episode. While I fully agree with the Judge's ruling, I was nevertheless really charmed by Brittany. I would love an update on this: did she ever get permission from the cemeteries? And did she carry on her project (hopefully only with permission)? Brittany, if you're out there, let us know what happened!

one of the best episodes

i've been listening to the archived episodes and this is probably the best episode i've heard. strange but believable situation, great humor and satisfying resultion.

Fence hopping

Didn't realize how annoying and disrepectful somebody's casual, semi-ironic love of late night cemetery jaunts could appear until I heard this story and her tale of ripping her clothing on the fence around the place where my father is buried.

A bit late

But I needed to comment that although I personally appreciate Brittany's project, it is presumptuous and selfish to assume that everyone would. People grieve and care for lost loved ones in deeply personal and often private ways. She cannot know who would or would not want the trees to have been taken and replanted. I am glad she did not mail the photographs to families, and think she deserved further reprimand for her naive assumptions about how others grieve, remember, or celebrate their lost loved ones. I do agree with the Judge that if she receives permission this is an excellent project.

Also, hipsters, man. Hipsters.


I didn't hear her say, "I dropped my silver iPod Nano while listening to Grizzly Bear, then ruined one of my Chucks when I stepped in mud, and THEN broke my cat-eye frame glasses! Also my Honda Fit is actually a bike with a trailer." That would've been a hipster. These two sound genuinely eccentric and unpretentious to me!


"a stopped cod is right twice a day"

Thank you, Judge

While I think Brittany's heart is in the right place, I agree with the Judge that she should have reached out to the cemeteries. She doesn't know if the cemeteries had a sustainable plan, one perhaps that was even superior to her own. Instead she presumed that her plan was best without consulting with any of the actual stakeholders. She rightfully compared herself to a scolded child at the end of the episode.

I would like to emphasize that I think this project is an excellent idea, and worth pursuing. Brittany clearly has a generous heart, and does not lack initiative. However, as it has been conducted thus far, this project is neither legal nor moral.

FWIW, my mother volunteers with both findagrave (an excellent resource for Brittany should she eventually reach out to the families) and a local cemetery.


A cultural reference I actually got! Woohoo!

Reversed and remanded

Opinion from the Court of Appeals.

Taking a page from the judge, himself, I am highlighting a detail in order to articulate my opinion of the whole.

I think this case should have been called "Robin Wood." The actual title, "Six Feet Plunder," is clearly, as the opinion notes, not merited. And that detail lays bare the heartmatter of the error in this case.

In order to find that the plaintiff was a "robber of graves," the court needed to find robbery: the taking of the property of another by force or by threat. In order to find robbery, all elements of the offense must be satisfied.

Let's examine the elements. First, was there a taking? Yes. That is, property was put into the possession of a new owner. Did it belong to another? Yes. Either the dead or the person placing the trees on their property--presumably the heirs of the deceased. Was there force? No.

At worst, then, this was grave larceny, as no one suffered bodily injury or fear.

And that would be the end of it, unless an affirmative defense was raised. Here, just such an affirmative defense was raised.
It would be tempting to call it adverse possession, because the analysis would be more interesting. It is rather the defense of abandonment, composed of these elements: the property must have been (1) intentionally placed by a (2) rightful owner who (3) had no intention of reclaiming the property.

There could be no clearer case. The trees were implicitly abandoned by the owners who, noting the sign, did not come to reclaim the trees. They were explicitly abandoned by the graveyard owners. In any case, the cemetery would have only been asserting a claim that the trees were abandoned. Even if they had an interest in the trees--and no evidence was entered to indicate such--under the abandoned property doctrine, the first possessor takes title.

That said, the Court of Judge John Hodgman is not a court of law. This is not an matter of constitutional or statutory authority, but of substantive definition. The object of your court is justice. Or, more accurately, of equity. Of fairness.

To the doctrine, the rules of abandonment are borne from the laws of treasure. It would cause too much inefficiency if every potential heir to treasure were allowed to bring suit. In practice, opening the door to such claimants would deprive the treasure of it's value to the finder.

And that's what you forgot.

Brittany took something abandoned and made it precious. To say she can't do it again is a cynical nod to someone who would claim they wanted the tree to rot there. Let's be better than that. Let's believe that most people would feel honored that a stranger validated their Christmas mourning. Let's think that because it's human and good and right.

And if Brittany is hazarding some hidden protest from some idiot, let's allow her to weight the cost of that hazard against (1) the benefit of commissioning a loving project for strangers, whether or not they were given notice and (2) the benefit to others who she might provide notice to in the future.

If I die, and someone puts flowers on my grave, my ghost would be a guardian angel to whomever propagated those flowers. It's an idea of persisting in memory, of persisting in life, of mattering, even if it is just to some anonymous tree in some stray field.

The opinion of the court below is reversed and rendered for the plaintiff, and the case is remanded for sentencing of the defendant.

Maid Marian

Brittany’s graveside recycling demonstrated larger stewardship. The forest for the trees. She is Lady Marian to Robin Hood. Did they marry and raise little Hoods together? She considered the trees in and of themselves. Who does that? Of the right of all species to continued existence. Of our responsibility to the reality of creation.

Santa would totally agree with her evergreen ethics—she saved hundreds of twiggy lives. To claim otherwise is narrow speciesism. Her graveside collection considered the needs of all species. Why not expand the boundaries of our moral community to the whole of creation.

Yes, she has a nineteenth century preoccupation with death. Don’t you. Are we really happy with our American death industry, which operates primarily in terms of profit motive. She saved trees. Not profit. She is the mistress of the green burial movement. Her midnight antics are an alternative to our costly and environmentally detrimental traditional burial practices. Imagine a Brittany based cemetery: a rugged forest, a Victorian celebration of death.

Can our world afford not to take her environmental ethics into consideration?

Humble thanks

This was very kind of you to say.

It was kind of you to do

Really and truly, whoever'd take you to small claims about this wouldn't be entitled to much in the way of damages, so far as I know. Actual damages would be the market value of a tree--a nominal dollar?--emotional damages would be, what?, the pain and suffering felt when the tree wasn't chucked out by the cemetery groundskeepers? Trespatory damages would be nominal, too--but whoever brought such a case would really be acting in spite, costing themselves more in bringing the suit than any foreseeable award.

If that happens, I have to believe Charles Dickens would owe that plaintiff some visions :)


this was a delightful episode, and i'm glad someone else likes hanging out in cemeteries and has lost a beloved watch while hopping a barbed-wire fence. bravo brittany!

Thank you!

Thank you!

The sex pistols

But, what is the honorable judge John hodgman's opinion on the sex pistols cover of roadrunner?

Cell phone waiting lots at SeaTac Airport

As a long-time resident of King County & user of SeaTac airport, there has been a cell phone waiting lot at SeaTac since well before 2009.

That is all.

Waiting lot

Well.... the lot could have either been full or closed. I too am a resident of King county and many times have found the lot full. It was also expanded to suit the demand some time after 2010. Let's give her the benefit of the doubt.

This was a brilliant episode.

This was a brilliant episode. Brittany, you are a wonderful person.

In my dissenting opinion, I strongly urge you to continue your tree collection + replanting whether or not you get permissions from the graveyards.

I agree, I think it's a

I agree, I think it's a lovely idea. I can't imagine the cemeteries not giving permission, but if they don't I think you should still go for it.

Thank you! I'm going to give

Thank you! I'm going to give it a legitimate try this time around...