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