Judge warns of rise in exhumation requests

07 December 2006

by Shiranikha Herbert, Legal Correspondent

A CHANCELLOR has rejected a deceased widow’s request for her husband’s ashes to be moved so that they could be scattered with hers.

The request, made in her will, asked for them to be exhumed from their burial place in consecrated ground. It did not amount to an “exceptional circumstance”, which would have justified the granting of a faculty for exhumation, His Honour Judge Martin Cardinal, the Chancellor of Birmingham diocese, ruled in the Consistory Court.

The petition for a faculty was brought by William Darby, the executor of the will of Florence Mary Pearson, for the exhumation of the ashes of her late husband, Eric Pearson, from consecrated ground in Robin Hood Cemetery, Shirley, Solihull, so that they might, as requested by Mrs Pearson, be scattered with her ashes off Beachy Head.

Refusing the petition, the Chancellor remarked that petitions for exhumation had not only become increasingly frequent recently, but they had also become increasingly contentious. The general principle was that exhumation would be granted only in exceptional circumstances.

It was for the petitioner to satisfy the court that in his or her case there were special circumstances that justified the making of an exception from the norm — that Christian burial of a body or cremated remains in a consecrated churchyard or the consecrated part of a local authority cemetery was intended to be the final resting place on this earth.

Further, as a mark of respect for and consideration of the sensibilities of others with loved ones buried near by, it was not appropriate in most cases for a body or its ashes to be removed. An exhumation could cause distress and be deeply offensive to such people and to the general public.

Twenty years had elapsed since Mr Pearson had been laid to rest. In the present case the delay was of considerable importance. It was not a case where the late Mrs Pearson had problems bringing a petition. It was simply made by her executor following her demise.

That was not good enough, the Chancellor said, to surmount the exceptionality test. It was a number of years since Mr Pearson’s burial, and Mrs Pearson’s death was insufficient reason to justify the exhumation. The Chancellor continued that, while it was true that the court looked at each individual case, none the less he bore in mind that, were he to grant this petition, many others might follow.

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