THE Vietnamese tradition of exhuming and reburying a body ten years after burial was very different from the Christian tradition of the permanence of burial in consecrated ground. Nevertheless, the right to manifest one’s religion was a strong reason for permitting the Vietnamese tradition, the Chancellor ruled in the Consistory Court of Southwark when granting a faculty for exhumation.
On 15 October 2014, Dong Hong, a Vietnamese Buddhist, sought permission to exhume the remains of his father, Tich Tring Hong, from plot 162 in Putney Vale Cemetery, to enable their reinterment to plot 279 in the same cemetery. Both plots are within the consecrated sections of the cemetery.
Dong Hong is the eldest son of his father, whose remains were buried in the cemetery in November 1982. According to Vietnamese tradition and culture, the eldest son is required to carry out the exhumation and reburial of his deceased father’s body, ten years after it is buried. This is done to show respect to the father, his close relatives, and ancestors. The surviving family of the deceased would then receive blessings from the ancestors, bringing them good health and luck for generations.
The Chancellor, the Worshipful Philip Petchey, asked why the remains of the deceased were interred in the consecrated part of the cemetery in the first place, if it was intended that they should be exhumed after ten years. It would have been readily apparent, he said, that obtaining permission for such exhumation would not be straightforward. He also asked why, if exhumation after ten years was the tradition, permission had not been sought in 1992.
Mr Hong replied that he had "overlooked the matter many years ago". He said he was now 66 years old, and wanted to "carry out this traditional custom" while he was physically and mentally fit to do so.
The Chancellor said that the case could be categorised as one of mistake. In 2014, the family appreciated that a mistake had been made by interring the remains of the deceased in consecrated ground, because the legal principle that exhumation was permitted only exceptionally meant that they were unable to exhume the remains. Nor were they able to observe a religious practice which, in good faith, they wished to observe.
Article 9 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights qualifies "the right to manifest his religion or belief . . . to such limitations as are prescribed by law". The Chancellor said that it was unattractive to say to a Buddhist that the manifestation of his religious belief must be curtailed because of the need to sustain the principle of the permanence of Christian burial. Unless permission for the exhumation were permitted, Mr Hong and his family would not be able to manifest their religious beliefs.
Although the right to manifest such beliefs was not an unfettered one, the Chancellor said that the general arguments that strongly supported the maintenance of the principle of the permanence of Christian burial in consecrated ground should not prevail to prevent the manifestation of Mr Hong’s beliefs. It might perhaps be "happier" if the reinterment were into unconsecrated ground, the Chancellor said; but, whether consecrated or not, it was now a matter of indifference to Mr Hong and his family, because there was no foreseeable possibility of the further exhumation of Tich Trinh Hong’s remains.