THE fact that a petitioner was now infirm, and unable to visit the grave of a close family member because of its inaccessible location, was not a reason that would justify granting a faculty for the exhumation of remains so that they could be reburied in a more accessible grave.
The petitioner’s advancing years and deteriorating health did not amount to a special reason for departing from the norm that Christian burial in consecrated ground was to be regarded as permanent.
The Consistory Court of the diocese of Norwich therefore refused a faculty for the exhumation of the cremated remains of Queenie Kate Beckett, who died in 1996, and was buried in the churchyard of St Peter’s, Gunton.
The petitioner, Mrs Beckett’s daughter, Queenie Ivy Gooch, is now aged 81, and is a wheelchair-user. She finds it difficult to visit her mother’s grave because it is set some way back from the main path, and the width of the path and the uneven terrain make wheelchair access a problem. The inability to visit her mother’s grave causes Mrs Gooch distress, and for that reason she wishes to exhume her mother’s remains and reinter them in Kirkley cemetery, which is near by.
Kirkley cemetery is a municipal cemetery where, unlike a rural churchyard, there are wide roads and flat lawns that make access to the graves far easier. As a disabled badge-holder, Mrs Gooch would be entitled to be driven into the cemetery to a point very close to the proposed grave plot.
Mrs Gooch’s husband died this year, and his remains will be interred in Kirkley cemetery, where a plot has been reserved for him with provision for Mrs Gooch’s remains to join his in the fullness of time. The hope is to reinter Mrs Beckett’s remains in a plot adjoining that one. Mrs Gooch’s daughter and husband have also reserved a plot in Kirkley cemetery next to the plot reserved for Mr and Mrs Gooch.
The incumbent and churchwarden of St Peter’s have no objection to the exhumation, but expressed concern about the setting of a precedent should a faculty be granted. The law on exhumation was reviewed by the Court of Arches in 2002 in a case concerning Blagdon cemetery, and that court restated the long-established presumption against exhumation, and the permanence of Christian burial in consecrated ground.
The presumption arises from the Christian theology of burial. As explained in the Blagdon case, burial of the physical body or the cremated remains is seen as a symbol of entrusting the deceased person to God for resurrection, commending the person to God, and entrusting the person in peace for an ultimate destination.
The commending, entrusting, and resting in peace did not sit easily with “portable remains”, which suggested the opposite, the court was told in the Blagdon case. It was for the petitioner to satisfy the court that there were special circumstances in her case which would justify the making of an exception in her case.
The Chancellor of the diocese of Norwich, the Worshipful Ruth Arlow, said that she had great sympathy for the petitioner, Mrs Gooch, but could not find that special reasons existed that would justify an exception to the norm of the permanence of Christian burial so as to grant a faculty for exhumation.
If advancing years and the consequent limitations of mobility were to be sufficient reason for an exhumation, then that could lead to a flood of similar applications, and unacceptable inroads into the principle of permanence. It was hoped that Mrs Gooch would find some comfort in the confidence that her mother had been entrusted into the safety of God’s hands in the hope of future resurrection, the Chancellor said.