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Court puts stop to illegal headstones

04 November 2016


No more granite: the presence of unauthorised memorials in the churchyard of St John the Baptist, Berkswell did not justify authorising more

No more granite: the presence of unauthorised memorials in the churchyard of St John the Baptist, Berkswell did not justify authorising more

THE fact that there already existed in a churchyard headstones which did not conform to the Churchyard Regulations was not a reason which entitled others to erect non-compliant headstones themselves, it was made clear in two recent cases in the Consistory Courts. The Chancellors said that the presence in the churchyard of other memorials which were outside the regulations did not oblige them to authorise further similar memorials.

The first case, from the Consistory Court of Ely, concerned an application for a faculty to erect in the churchyard of St Andrew’s, Witchford, a headstone which, in its size, design, and material, fell outside the regulations. The inscription consisted of a long and sentimental address by the family to the deceased.

The DAC did not recommend the proposed headstone, and also expressed concern about the number of memorials which fell outside the regulations. The parish priest decided that it was beyond her remit to allow the inscription, because it was neither simple, nor of Christian significance.

The petitioner, Clara Scott, the widow of the deceased, supplied the court with photographs of other headstones in similar material which had carved on them dice, a horse, a sports car, a tractor, a photograph of the deceased, a motor cycle, and the emblem of the drinks manufacturer, Guinness, with the representation of a toucan with a beer mug balanced on its nose.

The Chancellor of the diocese of Ely, Judge Leonard QC, said that he had the power to grant a faculty to allow for a memorial which did not conform to the regulations, but he had to exercise that discretion carefully, remembering his duty to preserve the churchyard for generations to come.

Judge Leonard refused to grant the faculty. Although Mrs Scott would feel aggrieved that she would be denied the same stone as others, because she had gone about the application in the right way by petitioning for a faculty, Judge Leonard said, he could not allow the application only because others had flouted the regulations in the past.

Having seen the photographs, he said, it was inevitable that in almost every case no chancellor would have granted a faculty for their erection.

In his judgment, the emotional distress that would result if he were to require those headstones to be removed could not justify such a course, particularly in cases where many years had passed since the headstone was erected, he said. For that reason, he did not intend to take action of his own volition in respect of the offending headstones.

He would, however, consider any application for a restoration order by the archdeacon, the parish priest, or any other person appearing to have a sufficient interest in the matter.

The second case was from the Consistory Court of Coventry, in respect of an application by David Weatherson to erect a headstone over his father’s grave in the churchyard of St John the Baptist, Berkswell, which is Grade I listed. The only objection to the proposed headstone was that it was to be in honed grey granite, although there already were a few such stones in the churchyard.

Mr Weatherson, who lived in Birmingham diocese, had engaged a reputable firm of monumental masons there, and had had the memorial cut and engraved, and had paid for it. Both he and the masons assumed that the honed granite would be acceptable.

Mr Weatherson said that he had made an error in not checking the position before arranging for the memorial to be made; but, he said, the memorial should be permitted, because there were already some memorials of honed granite in the churchyard, and because the memorial had been made and paid for as the result of an honest mistake.

The Chancellor of the diocese of Coventry, Judge Eyre QC, said that this was not a case where there had been an attempt to steal a march, or to create a fait accompli. Mr Weatherson had made a mistake, and had wasted the cost of the memorial if a faculty was not granted. Those circumstances did not constitute a good reason for departing from the Churchyard Regulations, however, and the faculty was refused.

The approach which the Rector and the PCC had taken over recent years, of preventing further granite memorials, sought to ensure that, for the future, memorials in the churchyard would be of a material compatible with the church and the locality, Judge Eyre said, and that approach was “entirely appropriate”, particularly given the Grade I listing of the church, and the appearance of the surrounding area.

Judge Eyre also drew attention to the need for fairness to others whose preference was to install granite memorials to their loved ones, but who had checked with the Rector or parish office before commissioning a memorial, had accepted the decision that memorials in this churchyard should not be of granite, and had used other stone contrary to their initial wishes.

There would be a real unfairness to such persons if Mr Weatherson were to be allowed to install a granite memorial because he did not check the applicable approach in advance.

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