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Don’t let the graves trip you up

01 November 2013

Churchyards can offer fruitful opportunities for ministry, argues Philip Martin


ONCE, I foolishly ran to collect something from church, and slipped among the gravestones. While my nose was being stitched together again in hospital, I reflected that it was the first time that I had been assaulted by a dead parishioner. None the less, caring for this hallowed space is often stressful, and most new clergy - typically serving curacies in urban areas - have nothing to prepare them for the task. From more than 20 years of hard experience, I offer these observations and suggestions.

The churchyard is a place of pastoral ministry. In these de-sacralised times, it is widely acknowledged that thoughts of the dead re- awaken a more spiritual dimension in people. Pastoral assistants who feel underused by their incumbent could find ample opportunity to support the bereaved by going to weed in the churchyard or to arrange cups of tea on Saturday mornings. My parish has organised occasional services in the summer for the blessing of graves. A labyrinth mown in one corner also provides any visitors with an opportunity for reflection and prayer.

Read the detail on memorial applications. It is always the one that seems routine that turns out to be polished black granite, inscribed with a pop song.

Don't go it alone. Rural clergy tend to be loners, and we like it that way. But all of us need support in this area of ministry. Get advice from the registrar - or, usually, the registrar's clerk.

Forge a partnership with the Parish Council: after all, the churchyard is saving them the expense and trouble of providing a burial ground. They can award money to cover some or all of the capital and other expenses: making paths safe, paying for a new mower, and so on.

Our county Probationary Service brings, for a small charge, a team of Community Payback volunteers to carry out the twice-yearly grass cut amid the old graves; I try to pop by and give them each a card to express our thanks.

Be kind to your volunteers. Many people seem willing to help a bit with looking after the churchyard, and the church can surely stretch to buying them a pint one evening when the new mowing rota is distributed, and providing fish and chips for all who turn out to help with the autumn tidy-up.

Let the flowers grow, but not too much. One person's wild-flower meadow is another's disrespectful mess. A churchyard is a good place to hone the rural parson's skills as diplomat, but a few simple notices, reassuring explanations in the local magazine, and some plaudits from the local wildlife trust will go a long way to reassure those (often the born-and-bred country folk) who are most zealous in suppressing nature. As with all ministry everywhere, if you do the funerals well, people will make allowances.


TWO issues need rethinking.

In my experience, a request to "reserve a grave space" most often follows a traumatic, usually young, death, and frequently is not, in fact, used when the petitioners - perhaps several decades later, and having moved away - themselves die.

So, while the request reflects an understandable wish for proximity (something we may sympathise with, but cannot easily support on Christian grounds), it diminishes the number of grave spaces available for future use.

I made enquiries around diocesan registries while preparing this article, and was surprised by the number of applications routinely approved: on average, about 25 each year in each diocese. Faced with such requests, we, as parish priests, might respectfully point out that a properly dug grave can receive at least another two burials (and an unlimited number of internments of ashes), and we can help bereaved persons to place their hope of continuing closeness to loved ones in heaven rather than in the churchyard plan. Diocesan registrars should routinely refuse all requests to reserve grave spaces.


RE-USE of burial spaces should be encouraged. This was normal throughout our Christian past, until a number of scandalous exhumations in city churchyards led to a complete prohibition in the 19th century. Now, according to a national survey, the average churchyard, among those that remain open, has enough space for only a further 20 years.

A handful of churchyards are beginning to re-examine older burial areas, which often have unused spaces. There needs to be more support for this process nationally. Burial should be for a limited period only, say, 80 years, after which any remains could be re-interred, either in the same spot or elsewhere.

An extra difficulty standing in the way of re-use of graves is the disposal of stone memorials, and these should be subject to greater restriction. A standard memorial is today made of granite imported from India. It would be much better if our system of fees strongly encouraged small tablets of stone and/or crosses made of that natural, indigenous, sustainable material: wood.

One last piece of advice: take care when running among the gravestones. Those dead parishioners can trip you up badly. 

The Revd Philip Martin is Vicar of St James's, Alderholt, in the diocese of Salisbury.

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