AFTER a series of unusual events relating to the cremated remains of Tom Sharpe, a well-known writer of humorous fiction, Chancellor Euan Duff, in the Consistory Court of Newcastle, ordered that a member of the PCC of St Aidan’s, Thockrington, should unearth anything that had been illegally buried in the churchyard.
Mr Sharpe died on 6 June 2013 in Llafranc, in north-east Spain. At his funeral service, on 9 June, his wife, Nancy Sharpe, and a Dr Montserrat Verdaguer Clavera both spoke. It appeared that Mr Sharpe was living apart from his wife before his death, and was in some sort of relationship with Dr Verdaguer. Dr Verdaguer said that the main part of his cremated remains were taken by his widow, but that some were left for Dr Verdaguer.
On 7 June 2013, an article had appeared in the Newcastle paper The Journal suggesting that some of Mr Sharpe’s ashes would be scattered at St Aidan’s. The PCC and the Vicar, the Revd Michael J. Slade, noted that, but they had not been contacted in relation to it.
On 5 June 2014, a further article appeared in The Journal stating that Mr Sharpe’s ashes had been buried in Thockrington churchyard, together with a bottle of whisky, a cigar, and his favourite pen, by Dr Verdaguer, who was accompanied by a local man and a Spanish film-crew (News, 13 June 2014). The article was accompanied by a photograph of some flowers and a plaque. The newspaper’s website had more photographs, including one of an urn with a certificate on the outside.
Mr Slade immediately contacted Mrs Sharpe and Dr Verdaguer by email. Mrs Sharpe expressed surprise and distress at what had occurred, and said she knew that Mr Sharpe would have wished to be buried at Thockrington. She said that she had, through a solicitor, contacted Newcastle diocese to inquire about the possibility of his remains being buried in Thockrington, but had been told that he would, at least, have had to be a regular churchgoer at St Aidan’s for that to be possible.
Mrs Sharpe said that she had accepted that, and had not taken the matter any further. She had, however, scattered some of the ashes on the fellside outside the churchyard.
Dr Verdaguer replied to say that she hoped she had not disturbed any grave, and lamented the fact that Mr Sharpe had been cremated, and that, a year after his death, he was “still unburied”. She said that the casket that had been buried was empty, and that the whole exercise had been “just a TV documentary”.
In the light of that series of events, and the uncertainty about what had been buried at Thockrington churchyard, Mr Slade applied for a restoration order against Dr Verdaguer for a member of the PCC, D. R. P. Burn, to be required to unearth whatever had been buried by Dr Verdaguer, and for the site to be restored to its previous condition.
The application was served on Dr Verdaguer, at the address in Spain; Mr Burn; and the Archdeacon of Lindisfarne, the Ven. Peter Robinson.
No response had been received from Dr Verdaguer when the Chancellor, after visiting the churchyard, issued interim directions on 3 November 2015 for Mr Burn, on behalf of the PCC, to unearth any items that might have been illegally buried and hand them to the Vicar, who was to retain them and report the nature of the items to the Chancellor.
On 13 November 2015, Mr Slade reported that Mr Burn had unearthed some loose mortal remains (ashes) from a small plastic bag, a medium-sized bottle of Famous Grouse whisky, a fountain pen, two small tea-lights, and two broken red plastic numerals. The surface of the site was made good, and the items unearthed were kept safe by Mr Slade.
On 24 November 2015, Dr Verdaguer sent a number of documents in Spanish and in English, stating that what was buried was an empty ecological urn, together with the pen, the whisky, and a few other items. She said that, when she arrived at the church, she had found “a completely isolated church in the middle of the country . . . an abandoned garden surrounding it [which] nobody had visited in a long time given the turf’s length . . . with some crosses and monument which indicated that years ago it had been a cemetery”. Dr Verdaguer argued that no burial of ashes had taken place, and that the charges against her should be dropped.
Mr Slade confirmed, in response to an enquiry, that he was as certain as he could be that the remains that were found were human, and that normally human ashes were put in a biodegradable casket in a tied-up plastic bag, unless it was known that they were to be scattered, in which case they were put in loose so that they could be poured out easily. The items recovered were in and around a split plastic bag, with no traces of a casket, which would accord with the normal practice, and the casket having degraded.
The Chancellor said that he was unable to accept Dr Verdaguer’s account of what happened, and, in particular, that no human remains were buried by her. Her accounts had been contradictory, and did not accord with the evidence of what had been recovered from the site.
It was essentially irrelevant, however, whether or not she was telling the truth about having buried an empty biodegradable casket; she had admitted at every stage that she entered the churchyard and buried items there. She expressed to the Vicar the hope that she had not disturbed any grave.
At no stage did she have any permission to enter the churchyard and bury items there, the Chancellor said. Although St Aidan’s was undoubtedly in an isolated situation, it was regularly used for worship on the second and fourth Sundays of each month, as the most cursory enquiry would have revealed. It was obvious that the churchyard was precisely that: a churchyard enclosed by a dry-stone wall surrounding the church, in which there were headstones from burials that had taken place in recent years, as well as others of greater age.
It was possible that Dr Verdaguer’s actions were a publicity stunt in connection with a biography of Mr Sharpe that she was writing. But her motives were irrelevant, the Chancellor said. What she did was unauthorised, a clear trespass, and disrespectful of those properly and lawfully interred within the churchyard.
Dr Verdaguer was ordered to pay the costs of the application, plus VAT, making a total of £1330, within 28 days. Further directions will be given as to the disposal of all the unearthed items, including the human remains in the form of ashes.