Headstone ruling forces compromise

29 July 2016

JEFF GOGARTY/COMMONS

Sunlit: headstones in the churchyard at St Augustine’s, Droitwich Spa

Sunlit: headstones in the churchyard at St Augustine’s, Droitwich Spa

THE Consistory Court of the diocese of Worcester was called on to resolve the question of who, if anyone, had the right or duty to erect a commemorative memorial over the grave of a deceased person.

The question arose in connection with the grave of Peter Hanson, a successful businessman. He had been married to Dorothy, and they had two children. Mr and Mrs Hanson had appeared to have a good marriage. They had lived and entertained well, and had a large circle of friends. The split in their marriage came as a shock to all who knew them, but most of all to their family.

Mr Hanson’s new relationship was with Renate Spickenreuther, who had worked with him in his business for some years. They lived together until his death, but the rift with his family was never healed.

When Mr Hanson died in April 2012, his body was buried in a double grave in the churchyard at St Augustine’s, Droitwich Spa, with the intention that the body of Mrs Spickenreuther would also be buried there in due course. There was some discussion between her and Mr Hanson’s family about the design of the headstone to be erected above his grave.

In October 2013, Mark Hanson, Peter and Dorothy’s son, erected a headstone without the agreement of Mrs Spickenreuther, or the Vicar, and without the authority of a faculty. It read:

 

In loving memory of Peter Hanson 31.5.1933-30.4.2012
Age 78 Years
Loving Father, Grandfather, Great Grandfather and Partner
Three cheers for Pooh!

 

The reference to “Pooh” was because it was said that he had often read to his children and grandchildren from the well-known children’s books.

Mrs Spickenreuther objected to the wording of the memorial, and submitted a petition for a faculty to remove the headstone and replace it with a new one inscribed with two interlinked hearts beneath a dove, commencing with the words “Cherished memories of a wonderful partner, Dad, Grandad & Brother . . .”. Mr Hanson’s children objected.

The Chancellor, Charles Mynors, said that this case concerned “a problem that [was] unfortunately becoming more common”. It appeared from the general case law that the executors of a deceased person had both the power and, at least to some extent, the duty to make arrangements for the disposal of the body. That made sense, the Chancellor said, as every dead body had to be disposed of somehow, and someone had to be given the final decision.

But that did not necessarily apply to the erection of memorials, probably because there was no overwhelming need for there to be any memorial at all. Therefore, it seemed that there was no overriding legal principle to determine who should have the power to decide the manner in which a deceased person should be commemorated, if at all.

The Chancellor said that, given that there was no definitive legal principle governing the right to choose a memorial, and that there was no overwhelming need for a memorial to be erected in any event, it might be better that there should be no memorial at all rather than one being erected that was opposed by some of those closely connected with the deceased.

Therefore, incumbents should be alert to situations in which a proposed memorial might be controversial, the Chancellor said. Where an incumbent detected that that was the case, the person seeking the memorial should be asked to produce evidence that the proposal commanded the support of those entitled to express a view. If there was a dispute that could not be resolved, approval should be withheld, and the applicant invited to apply for a faculty. Where no compromise emerged, the faculty might then be refused.

It would be unfortunate, the Chancellor said, if that were to lead to the deceased’s being deprived of any memorial. It might therefore be appropriate that, in the event of a deadlock between the competing wishes of those close to the deceased, a faculty was sought for the introduction of a simple memorial recording merely the deceased’s full name, date of birth, and date of death. That could probably best be done by the Archdeacon as a neutral party.

The Chancellor had invited the Archdeacon to submit a petition for the removal of the existing memorial, and for the erection of a new one, recording only the full name and dates of birth and death of Peter Hanson. A compromise was reached, however, and a faculty was granted for the erection of a memorial stating:

 

In loving memory of Peter Hanson
31.5.1933-30.4.2012
Cherished Partner, Father, Grandfather, Great Grandfather and Brother

 

It was ordered that the remaining space in the grave be reserved for Mrs Spickenreuther, and that the parish records be noted accordingly; that the existing timber cross on the grave be removed; and that in future no items other than natural or silk flowers be placed on the grave.

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