EXHUMATION, and reinterment in a different part of the churchyard, could be seen as being for the public benefit when the existing memorial stone over the grave was being used by thieves to climb on to the church roof, the Consistory Court of the diocese of Coventry ruled when granting a faculty.
Caskets containing the cremated remains of Margery Griffin and George Griffin were interred in August 1971 and July 2003 respectively, in the same plot, in the churchyard of All Saints’, Ladbroke, a Grade I listed church. The plot was marked by an upright memorial stone.
In 2004, a single-storey extension was built at All Saints’, close to the plot that contains the remains of Mr and Mrs Griffin. The plot was within inches of the wall of the extension. The roof of the extension sloped to the relatively low roof of the north aisle. The Griffins’ memorial stone had then been used as a stepping stone to gain access to the extension roof, and from there to the other roofs, before thieves used it for that purpose.
In 2008, thieves used the memorial stone to gain access to the roof of the extension. In 2015, thieves used it to gain access to, and steal, the north aisle roof, and caused damage to the extension roof. After the second theft, the memorial stone fell from its base. The incumbent, churchwardens, and PCC did not wish to have the stone restored to its original upright position because they feared further thefts and damage.
Instead, with the consent of Mr and Mrs Griffin’s daughter, they sought a faculty to allow the exhumation of the cremated remains and reinterment in the churchyard away from the church building, and the repositioning of the memorial stone there.
The Chancellor, His Honour Judge Stephen Eyre QC, said that the approach to be taken depended on the proper characterisation of this case. The starting point in all applications for exhumation was the presumption in favour of the permanence of Christian burial, and the need for exceptional circumstances if exhumation was to be permitted. “Public benefit” could be a circumstance justifying exhumation.
Whether the exhumation was for a private purpose, or for public benefit, there had to be a sound factual basis which provided a convincing reason justifying the proposed exhumation.
In an appropriate case, the extension or alteration to a church building could be a public benefit such as to justify the exhumation of remains interred in the church or the churchyard. The approach to be taken in “public benefit” cases was that the consequence of the disturbance and potential exhumation of human remains was a factor to be taken into account in deciding whether proposed works could be permitted. If the benefits were sufficiently clear and strong, then the building of an extension or the making of alterations could be a convincing and sufficient reason for the exhumation of remains.
The extension built in 2004 contained lavatories and storage facilities which were clearly regarded as being of benefit to the church, and had a noticeable effect on it. The risk of the theft of lead from church roofs was not as severe in 2004 as it later became. And the gravity of the risk was not in the forefront of the minds of those responsible for church buildings.
In those circumstances, the risk to the church of the juxtaposition of the upright memorial stone and the low roof of the extension would not have been recognised.
In the current circumstances, there was a need to reduce the risk of lead theft and the damage to the church roof. That need justified the movement or the laying down of the memorial, the Chancellor said. If exhumation was appropriate, then it would be possible to place the memorial upright in a suitable location, with the remains of Mr and Mrs Griffin reinterred under the memorial.
The exhumation could “be seen as in the public-benefit category of cases”, the Chancellor said, and the exhumation could “be seen as a delayed consequence of the building of the extension”. The “proper purposes of the [PCC] and the need to protect the church building from theft” justified the movement of the remains of Mr and Mrs Griffin, and the memorial, to another part of the churchyard.