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Graveyard regulations are cause of distress

31 July 2015


Cherished: the headstone at the grave of Janet Dacombe's son, in Grange cemetery, West Kirby

Cherished: the headstone at the grave of Janet Dacombe's son, in Grange cemetery, West Kirby

A BEREAVED mother, Janet Dacombe, has spoken of the distress caused by the Church’s regulations on churchyards. Rules banning photos and toys at gravesides were causing “extra distress” and “devastating” families, she said last week.

“They have not been allowed to do it because of snobbery. The Bible says ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted’ — not given more distress. They [the regulations] are archaic. It might be lots of people don’t like them because of taste, but we have to ask what would Jesus do? These rules are not in the Bible.”

Regulations concerning churchyards have evolved over centuries, and are contained in statutes, common law, and canon law. Some are laid down by diocesan chancellors, and significant variation can be found around the country. Incumbents also enjoy a degree of discretion.

Many diocesan guidelines ban mourners from leaving teddy bears, photos, or “other sentimental items” on a grave, and contain stipulations about suitable epitaphs. This is often explained with reference to posterity and the public nature of churchyards.

Guidance from Coventry diocese, for example, explains: “The incorporation of a photograph or ceramic portrait of the deceased is inappropriate on doctrinal grounds: they are not part of the English tradition, are out of harmony with the overall appearance of the average churchyard, and tend to become unsightly when exposed to our damp climate.”

The guidance advises “an understanding, sensitive approach from the incumbent” with regard to inscriptions — a topic on which there is regional variation. While Leicester is among those dioceses that do not permit any symbol other than a cross, Coventry suggests that “there can be no intrinsic objection” to a symbol that reflects a particular interest, such as a fishing rod or a dog:

“After all, our churches are full of small, often irreverent, but interesting designs, and symbols, which can be seen in gargoyles, stained-glass windows and misericords.”

Most discourage “sentimental” expressions. Guidance from Blackburn reads: “Nick-names are not considered suitable. . . It should be borne in mind that not all phrases which express present grief will read well in, say, thirty years’ time.” That from Southwark warns against “the trite, the home-spun, or the overly sentimental”.

Guidance from Lichfield states that “individuality, even quirkiness, is to be encouraged in the inscriptions on memorials,” and suggests that “Symbols may express an element of humour and the tradition of symbols in the form of a rebus or visual pun is to be encouraged.”

While some dioceses permit artificial flowers, others prohibit them. Guidance from Hereford states: “Flowers are encouraged as the symbol of the gift of creation and the brevity of life. Artificial flowers are inappropriate and should be discouraged.”

Sheffield diocese notes that families should be discouraged from placing items on a grave, warning that they “may be stolen or vandalised, and their deterioration can become a source of distress”.

Regulations in Oxford, however, permit such items “for a period of twelve months after the burial or interment. They must then be removed by the family or by the incumbent (or area dean) after sensitive consultation with the family.” A spokeswoman from the diocese of Oxford said: “The year’s grace is a concession made by the Chancellor to meet the pastoral needs of families.” 

Mrs Dacombe would like to see regulations develop in this direction. Her son James was born in 1990 and died aged three months. She acts now as a campaigner and bereavement consultant.

She said last week that she could see the issue “from both sides”, and that she had had support from many priests, “as they want this discussed. . . . It is putting people off church, instead of bringing people in. A little child cannot understand these rules. . . . I know the Church is slow to change, but in the mean time, people are getting so hurt.”

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