Burying George Washington Twice on Sleepy Hollow

GeorgeWashingtonFaceFinding the secret tomb of George Washington was a key story element in the Sleepy Hollow episode “The Indispensable Man.”

In the story, the First President rose from the dead four days after his death and drew a map to Purgatory. Washington’s temporally reanimated remains were then buried in New York.

Legal problem with this re-burial: it conflicts with President Washington’s Will from July 9, 1799. Washington’s Will states in relevant part:

The family Vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs, and being improperly situated besides, I desire that a new one of Brick, and upon a larger Scale, may be built at the foot of what is commonly called the Vineyard Inclosure, on the ground which is marked out. In which my remains, with those of my deceased relatives (now in the old Vault) and such others of my family as may choose to be entombed there, may be deposited. And it is my express desire that my Corpse may be Interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration.

National Archive, Founders Online, George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, 9 July 1799 [Emphasis added].

Washington’s will was executed in Virgina, thus Virgina, law should control on his intent. However, if Washington was buried in New York, a New York court would look to its own laws on the matter of disposing of a corpse because of the public safety concerns.

New York law states that a “testator may dispose of his own body or direct the method or place of its burial, but he may not require that he be buried in an unauthorized place.” In re Estate of Walker, 64 N.Y.2d 354, 359 (N.Y. 1985), citing Public Health Law § 4200 et seq.

New York law states the following on the duty of burial:

1. Except in the cases in which a right to dissect it is expressly conferred by law, every body of a deceased person, within this state, shall be decently buried or incinerated within a reasonable time after death.
2. The provisions of this section shall not impair the right to carry the body of a deceased person through this state, or to remove from this state the body of a person who has died within it, for the purpose of burying the same elsewhere.

NY CLS Pub Health § 4200.

The secret Free Mason Tomb in the middle of the woods where George Washington was buried was likely “an authorized place” at time of burial, depending on who owned the land and zoning laws in 1799 regulating disposing of a corpse.

Washington’s decision to have his body reburied in New York state would conflict with his expressly written will from July 9, 1799. This legal conflict could have been resolved with a simple codicil to his will stating his reanimated desire to be buried in New York. Given the story’s account of coming back from the dead, leaving a coded message, drawing a map of Purgatory, and Free Mason’s building a secret tomb, writing out one sentence with new burial instructions is not out of the realm of possibility.

Whether or not Washington was of sound mind and body when he wrote a post-death codicil is currently legally untested.