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Chancellor rules on grave row

27 September 2013


Unenviable choice: The Court of Solomon, an 1866 engraving by Gustave Doré. Chancellor Blackett-Ord said he had prayed for Solomon's wisdom when adjuciating on the case 

Unenviable choice: The Court of Solomon, an 1866 engraving by Gustave Doré. Chancellor Blackett-Ord said he had prayed for Solomon's wisdom when adj...

THE Chancellor of the diocese of Leicester, the Worshipful Mark Blackett-Ord, said that he prayed for the wisdom of Solomon in adjudicating on a dispute between two bereaved families, when, owing to a priest's mistake, a body had been buried in a grave space reserved by another family in the churchyard of St Andrew's, Thringstone, in the diocese of Leicester.

In July 2011, Stewart Dickson died aged 27, and his body was laid to rest in the churchyard. His parents applied for a faculty for the reservation of a double space immediately beside his grave. The faculty was granted in September 2011, on condition that the right reserved was marked and endorsed on an up-to-date churchyard plan, and that the space was physically marked on the ground in some small and discreet way.

In March 2013, another parishioner, David Garrett, died, aged 53, leaving a widow and a son. He, too, was buried in the churchyard.

Before the service, the plot in which he was to be buried was marked out on the ground by the Priest-in-Charge, the Revd A. J. Burgess, who remembered doing it when there was snow on the ground. Unfortunately, he marked the plot that had been reserved for the parents of Stewart Dickson. When it came to the attention of the Dicksons that the plot they had reserved had been occupied by another, they were angry and upset. The first that the Garretts knew that anything was wrong was long after Mr Garrett had been laid to rest, and they were upset when it was suggested that his body might have to be moved.

Each family had genuine sympathy for the other, but the Dicksons felt that they were entitled to the reserved plot, and the Garretts held to the orthodox Christian belief that once a person is buried in consecrated ground, that should be his final resting place. Each family held to its own position throughout the proceedings. What was unusual about this case was that it was not the family of the person to be moved who sought disinterment, and they positively opposed it.

His task, the Chancellor said, was to exercise his jurisdiction in a manner that created the least injustice. Mr Burgess apologised to the families at the hearing in the Consistory Court.

The fact that the mistake in question was the fault of Mr Burgess, and not of either of the families, gave him no assistance in deciding this case, he said; and, in the circumstances, he believed that justice required that the rights over the grave space should remain those of the family that reserved the space rather than those of the family who inadvertently but mistakenly took possession of it as a burial space for Mr Garrett.

The remains of Mr Garrett must be moved and reinterred within the churchyard. A grave space immediately adjoining him had been kept vacant by the churchwardens for that eventuality. No new funeral service was required, as Mr Garrett had already been committed to the earth for rest.

The Chancellor ordered that the reinterment should be performed by experienced funeral directors with a priest present. Mr Burgess was to take no part, and the Area Dean was asked to officiate and liaise with the family about the arrangements.

If there were lessons to be learned, they were these, the Chancellor said: (a) the standard faculty order reserving a grave space should in future cases state clearly that the obligation to mark a reserved plot was an obligation on the PCC or the incumbent and churchwardens, and not on the petitioners; and (b) no interment in the graveyard should take place unless the officiating priest was satisfied that the proposed grave space was not a reserved plot.

As to the costs of the court proceedings, the Chancellor said that Mr Burgess had "with characteristic decency" accepted that he had been the cause of the mistake that led to the petition's being necessary. That was reflected in an order for costs being made against him.

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