By Alex Lippa
---- — DERRY — Chris Niland lived in Derry for 23 years. In April, he lost his home to foreclosure and moved just across the town line to Hampstead.
On Dec. 10, his only son, 18-year-old Nicholas, died from injuries sustained in a car crash.
“It’s just been absolutely tragic,” Niland said.
Last week, things got even worse.
Niland wanted to bury his son, who spent most of his young life in Derry, in Forest Hills Cemetery.
He was told he couldn’t.
“They told me I couldn’t bury my son here, because I don’t live here anymore,” he said.
At an emergency meeting late Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 18, the Town Council made an exception. In a 6-0 vote, councilors — acting as cemetery trustees — voted to grant an exception to the policy which bars out-of-towners from purchasing cemetery plots.
The vote brought some small comfort to Niland, who said his son’s body has been in a coroner’s office in Boston for nine days at that point.
“From Head Start to middle school to Pinkerton, he grew up in this town,” Niland said. “This is where he’d be comfortable. This is his hometown and that’s where he needs to go.”
Nicholas’s half-brother — Leland Cole, 28, of Lynn, Mass. — died at the scene of the car accident in Salisbury, Mass. on Dec. 8.
Nicholas, a former Pinkerton student, was airlifted to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. His injuries were severe and he was taken off life support two days later.
Burial plots are exclusively available to Derry residents, but the policy does allow the cemetery trustees to make exceptions.
Niland said he was stunned that he wouldn’t be allowed to bury his son in Derry.
“I have enough grief on my hands,” he said before the emergency meeting. “I couldn’t believe they were treating me like this. I’m not interested in what the rules are.”
Niland called all seven town councilors Dec. 18. Councilors opted to call an emergency meeting. The vote was swift and unanimous. Town Council Chairman Michael Fairbanks was not at the meeting.
“The guy is trying to get his kid in the ground before Christmas,” Councilor Neil Wetherbee said. “I can’t imagine a worse scenario. The guy’s going through enough and now he had to deal with us. He doesn’t deserve this.”
Niland said he was fortunate the council was able to meet on such short notice
“That six councilors were able to come here on three hours notice was incredible,” he said. “It shows a lot that they can pull themselves together when they see an injustice. They can pull together and do the right thing, no matter what the rules and regulations are.”
Town Councilor Al Dimmock said the ability to respond quickly is part of why he became a town councilor.
“In situations like this, if I’m needed, I’m here,” Dimmock said.
Councilor Tom Cardon said Niland deserved to have his son buried in Forest Hills, after living in town for 23 years.
“The guy’s a resident for all those years,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine saying no.”
Acting Town Administrator Larry Budreau said this was the first time he could remember something like this occurring.
“This is my first personal knowledge of a situation such as this,” Budreau said. “This is an urgent situation, someone who is doing advanced planning may bump up against this rule and make other arrangements. Unfortunately, there is an urgency here.”
Niland said a vigil was held at Alexander Carr Park for Nicholas the week he died.
“It was the most magical experience,” he said.
Niland could have had a Derry resident buy the plot for him.
But he wanted to do it himself.
Budreau said the rule was put in place to prevent overcrowding.
“Before the cemetery expanded, they were faced with the decreasing availability of space to purchase plots,” he said. “Whether that is subject to the review of the current town council remains to be seen.”
But he said this case was deserving of a special exception.
“Nicholas’s life here and Chris’s residency here for 20 years created a fairly compelling reason to call this emergency meeting,” Budreau said.
Niland said he hopes his situation sets a precedent for people in similar situations.
“Maybe they can make it easier for the next parent who gets that phone call in the middle of the night,” he said.
A burial plot in Forest Hills costs $500.