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Reserved grave space: ruling

10 April 2015


THERE was nothing sinister or illegal about a parish's operating a policy of not permitting the reservation of grave spaces in the churchyard, the Diocesan Chancellor of Chester, Judge David Turner QC, ruled when refusing a faculty to reserve a plot in the churchyard of St Wilfrid's, Grappenhall, a Grade I listed church in a conservation area.

John and Annette Boardman, a married couple aged 70 and 69 respectively, petitioned for a faculty to reserve a yet unidentified plot for 30 years in the churchyard, so that, in due course, their remains could be interred there in full burial.

The Rector, the Revd Jane Proudfoot, the churchwardens, and the PCC did not consent to the faculty, because of the concern that it might set a precedent that could tie up church ground. The PCC, therefore, passed a resolution that included a policy of refusing to permit the reservation of grave spaces.

Mr and Mrs Boardman had their "hearts set" on being buried in the churchyard, and had viewed with increasing anxiety the rate at which grave space was being used. They felt a real concern that when their time came, the churchyard might be unable to accommodate their remains. They were not on the electoral roll, nor actively involved in church life as regular attenders, but they had strong local ties. They had lived in the parish for their entire married life (46 years), and regarded the church as "central to our village and our lives". Their daughters and two grandchildren had been baptised in the church; a daughter had married there; and Mrs Boardman's father's remains were interred in the churchyard.

Views, including those of diocesan chancellors, have differed on the desirability or appropriateness of reserving grave spaces. Those in favour of allowing reservation point to the comfort it gives to those seeking to make sensible provision for their death; that it often facilitates a grave near to that of other family members; and that it often reinforces a person's commitment to church, community, or locality, and gives expression to legitimate family feeling and a sense of history.

Those against reservation of plots point to the risk that it may prevent others who die before those with reserved spaces from being buried in the churchyard, and thus detract from the principle of equality of the departed. It was also said that, when space remained visible in the churchyard, the burials of those otherwise entitled to be buried there, but who could not be because of the reservation of space, could cause upset and misunderstanding.

The legal principles are clear. At common law, every parishioner, and also everyone dying in the parish, whether or not they are parishioners, have a right to burial in the parish churchyard. By statute, all those whose names are on the electoral roll of the parish have a similar right. The incumbent has a common-law power only to prescribe in what position in the churchyard the burial is to take place. Those common-law and statutory rights become clear only when the person in question dies.

The court has a discretion whether or not to allow a petition to reserve a grave space. Generally, the court does grant a faculty for the reservation of grave space, especially if the faculty is sought by those with a right to burial in the churchyard.

The Chancellor said, however, that where pressure on space was acute, the court was "unlikely to grant reservation so as to prejudice future burials"; so that "individuals with a legal right of burial must, generally, be interred in the order in which they die until such time as the churchyard is full."

The PCC's adoption of a policy of non-reservation of grave spaces was reasonable, he said, and there was "nothing sinister" about it. He had "anxiously struggled" to discern any "out-of-the-ordinary elements" in the petition which would enable the court to override the views of the PCC, and those charged with the churchyard's longer-term future, as well as the real risk of injustice to other local people who might pre-decease the Boardmans.

He had been unable to find any such elements, and the Boardmans' "need to know" where the earthly resting place for their remains would be, however strongly felt, did not suffice. He could not exercise his judicial discretion to prioritise their wish over what the PCC had determined, and refused the faculty.

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