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Court allows Serbia to reinter its queen in royal mausoleum

07 June 2013


THE Consistory Court of the diocese of Oxford has granted the petition of the ambassador of the Republic of Serbia for a faculty for the disinterment of the remains of Queen Maria of Yugoslavia, who died in England.

 er remains were buried in the royal burial ground at Frogmore, Windsor, on 22 June 1961. In September last year, the government of the Republic of Serbia adopted a decision on the establishment of the organising committee for the exhumation and transfer of the remains of members of the royal house of Karađjorđjević to the family crypt at St George's, Oplenac, in the Serbian city of Topola.

The ambassador's petition to the consistory court was for permission to exhume the remains of Queen Maria (otherwise known as Maria Karađjorđjević) so that they might be reinterred in Serbia, in St George's, with the remains of other members of the royal family.

Elizabeth II had given her consent to the exhumation, as had Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, and other surviving relatives of Queen Maria. The Dean of Windsor, the Rt Revd David Conner, had also expressed his agreement to the proposed disinterment.

The Burial Act 1857 states that, except where a body is removed from one consecrated place of burial to another by faculty, it is not lawful to move remains that have been interred in a place of burial "without licence under the hand of one of Her Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State and with such precautions as such Secretary of State may prescribe as the condition of such licence".

Although St George's had probably been consecrated according to Orthodox rites, such consecration was not the same as the consecration required by the Burial Act. Therefore, Queen Maria's remains were, in law, to be regarded as being transferred from one place consecrated according to the laws of England to another place which was not so consecrated.

Although the Burial Act applied only to this country, it was the exhumation of the body that required the licence of the Secretary of State rather than its re-interment, which might be in a country where the laws of England did not apply. On 11 April, a licence was granted on behalf of the Secretary of State for Justice requiring that Queen Maria's remains "be transported to the Republic of Serbia to be re-interred in the Oplenac Royal Mausoleum".

Even when a licence had been granted, however, the provisions of ecclesiastical law relating to exhumation still applied. Faculties for exhumation had been granted in the past for the bringing together or accumulation of family members in a single grave, provided that special reasons were put forward for the lapse of time since the date of burial.

The Revd and Worshipful Dr Rupert Bursell said that Queen Maria's remains had been buried in England since 1961, but it had not been possible for a petition for exhumation to be lodged at an earlier date, as the family had had necessarily to await a favourable decision by the government of Serbia. That decision had now been made.

That there were special reasons why the remains should be re-interred in the royal mausoleum could be inferred, the Chancellor said, from the fact that the decision to seek exhumation was made by the Serbian government itself. In the Chancellor's view, there could not be a better example of the exercise of the comity of nations, and it was difficult to imagine a better example of a family grave than a royal mausoleum.

It was entirely clear, the Chancellor said, that the jurisdiction of the consistory court should not be exercised save where it was satisfied that the remains would be treated, and continue to be treated, with reverence and dignity.

Just as the special protection of the ecclesiastical courts demanded that human remains would not be disturbed, save in exceptional circumstances, the consistory court should not permit an exhumation unless it was satisfied that those remains would thereafter be interred or preserved in a place of real permanence.

The Chancellor was satisfied that all those requirements would be more than adequately met by the re-interment in the royal mausoleum, and directed that a faculty for disinterment be issued.

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