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Courts stop bids to reserve grave plots

15 January 2016


Yew trees: the churchyard at St Matthew’s, Stretton, involved in a dispute over the rights of unmarried partners

Yew trees: the churchyard at St Matthew’s, Stretton, involved in a dispute over the rights of unmarried partners

IN TWO separate cases, the surviving unmarried partners of deceased men have failed in their attempts to reserve space to be buried in the same graves as their partners. In each case, the claim was opposed by the deceased person’s relatives: in one case, his estranged wife, and the fact of the opposition, was a reason for the rejection of the claim.

In one of the cases, the Chancery Court of York dismissed an application for leave to appeal against a decision of the Chancellor of Chester diocese, His Honour Judge David Turner QC, who had refused to grant a petition to reserve a grave space in a burial plot where the partner of the petitioner had been buried.

The petitioner, Christine Mary Marshall, applied to reserve a space for 30 years in a burial plot in the churchyard of St Matthew’s, Stretton, in Cheshire, where the body of David Bettles, who died in July 2013, aged 66, was buried.

The petition was opposed by Lorna Bettles, the widow of Mr Bettles, and his two adult daughters, Kate Hardie and Jill Morris. Mrs Bettles was the principal beneficiary and executrix of her husband’s will, made in 1993, and she had organised his funeral and paid for the headstone.

The marriage appeared to have broken down in about 2007. The petitioner and Mr Bettles had known each other for 40 years, and became intimate in late 2010. They shared a home from August 2011 until his death. Mrs Bettles began divorce proceedings, but did not pursue them.

Mr Bettles and the petitioner regularly worshipped at St Matthew’s. At the heart of the petitioner’s request was a conversation that, she said, took place in the churchyard in March 2013, when Mr Bettles was said to have expressed a clear wish to be buried there, and to have the petitioner’s remains placed with his when she died. There was some dispute about whether that conversation took place.

The petition was supported by the incumbent and churchwardens, and the PCC, and also by the two sisters of Mr Bettles. The objection of Mrs Bettles and her daughters was founded on a sense that a marriage of more than 40 years was not to be compared to an intimate relationship of no more than three years, and the confusion and upset that would be occasioned to the family, including grandchildren.

The family was also concerned that the petitioner would, in due course, seek to add her name to the headstone, although the petitioner denied that.

The Chancellor had concluded that it would be wrong, in the face of opposition from the natural and marital family of a deceased person, to place pressure on them to accept into a family member’s grave the remains of another person, however close that person may have been to the deceased.

The Chancery Court of York observed that, although it was relatively common to seek reservation of an unoccupied grave-space, it was much less common to seek to reserve a right to inter ashes or a second body in an already occupied grave. Some chancellors might consider that the grant of faculties in those circumstances was generally undesirable, and that the questions whether, and if so, whose, ashes should be interred in an already occupied grave was a matter to be decided when that person had died.

The Chancery Court of York said that there was nothing that arguably showed that the Chancellor’s judgment was wrong, and the petitioner’s application for leave to appeal failed.

In a different case, in the Consistory Court of Ely, the Chancellor, His Honour Judge Leonard QC, refused a petition by Jennifer Buckley to reserve a grave space in a burial plot in the churchyard of St Andrew’s, Witchford, where the remains of her partner, Nathan Buckley, are buried.

The petition was opposed by Mr Buckley’s next-of-kin, Olive Boswell, his eldest surviving child by his first partner, who died in 1957. Other members of that branch of the family also opposed the petition.

Refusing the petition, Judge Leonard said that the dispute between the parties weighed in favour of non-intervention, and that that was the correct decision when there were “high emotions on both sides”.

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