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Court rules Thomas the Tank Engine gravestone inappropriate  

22 April 2016


Getting up steam: a full-size Thomas the Tank Engine, connected with a James the Red Engine tender locomotive, runs through a tea field on Oigawa railway line in Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, last year

Getting up steam: a full-size Thomas the Tank Engine, connected with a James the Red Engine tender locomotive, runs through a tea field on Oigawa rail...

A REPRESENTATION of Thomas the Tank Engine is inappropriate for a headstone over a child’s grave in a churchyard, Chancellor Justin Gau ruled in the Consistory Court of the diocese of Bristol when refusing to grant a faculty.

Max Gainard, aged three, died a year ago. He had been a healthy and happy boy with a love for Thomas the Tank Engine.

His parents applied for a headstone for his grave in the churchyard of St Bartholomew’s, Wick, to be engraved: “Max Gainard 10.05.11-03.02.15. Much loved son, brother, grandson, nephew, and cousin. Sometimes the shortest stories are the most beautiful. Sleep tight baby boy.”

They had then adjusted their application for the headstone to be made of appropriately coloured stone, and asked for a coloured picture of Thomas the Tank Engine to be placed above the inscription.

Max’s parents pointed out that there was already a headstone in the graveyard with a coloured picture of a teddy on it, and that there were other headstones thatwere of a size and colour that should not have been allowed, and which, in Max’s parents’ view, were “vulgar to look at”.

Max’s grave, they said, was “tucked away”, the headstone facing away from general view, and the picture would identify his grave as being that of a child.

The Priest-in-Charge of St Bartholomew’s, the Revd Tim Bell, who conducted Max’s funeral service, supported their application. Alternatively, he suggested that a coloured picture of Thomas the Tank Engine, without coloured sky, could be engraved on the stone.

The Chancellor said that the Churchyard Memorial Regulations were clear, and that an amendment in January 2014 banned “any images or carvings that are not explicitly consonant with orthodox Christian belief”. He said that he could not imagine circumstances in which he would have allowed a picture of a teddy to be engraved on a headstone, and he was “disappointed that such a gravestone has been erected”.

Nevertheless, the Churchyard Regulations were clear about such headstones, and stated that headstones that had been erected in the past, with or without a faculty, and which “did not conform to the criteria set out . . . are not to be followed as precedents”.

Churchyards were consecrated to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Chancellor said, and what was set out on memorials therein must be consistent with that consecrated status. It followed that inscriptions must be consonant with orthodox Christian belief.

That was not only because of the purpose of churchyards, but also because inscriptions conveyed a message to those who visited churchyards. It was important that the message such visitors received was one that proclaimed — or at least was not inconsistent with — the message of hope and faith being given to them by Christ’s Church.

In addition, it was to be remembered, the Chancellor said, that the memorial would be read not just by those who knew the deceased in question, but also by those who did not. The message conveyed to those who did not know the deceased was, in many ways, more important. Moreover, the memorials placed in churchyards must be fitting and appropriate not just for today, but also for the future.

Matters of sentiment and aesthetic judgement were fraught areas, the Chancellor said, and he pointed out that Max’s parents set out the problem by identifying that several headstones in the churchyard were, in their view, “vulgar to look at”. Those same headstones, vulgar to strangers, must have given comfort to the deceased’s families when they were erected (but only presumably to them), however inappropriate they now appeared to those who did not know the deceased.

Refusing the petition, the Chancellor indicated that he had recognised that there were other headstones in the churchyard that fell foul of the regulations, and which might have been introduced unlawfully — in particular, the headstone with a coloured picture of a teddy on it — but that that must not be allowed to set a precedent.

The Chancellor said that it was clear from the moving inscription on Max’s headstone that this was the grave of a child, and one who was very much loved by his family, who were confident both of his peaceful rest and his resurrection.

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