Churchyard rules cannot be ignored, Chancellor rules

06 May 2016

North News & Pictures

Club colours: Christine Dalby, Shaun's mother, by his gravestone

Club colours: Christine Dalby, Shaun's mother, by his gravestone

ALTHOUGH a consistory court has a discretion to take into account pastoral considerations relating to a bereaved family, the churchyard rules must not be disregarded when erecting memorials in a churchyard.

Unauthorised memorials that violate those rules are a trespass, and liable to be removed by the PCC or on the orders of the Chancellor of the diocese. The fact that there were older memorials that had been installed without authorisation in the churchyard was not a reason for allowing more recent unauthorised memorials to remain there, the Consistory Court of the diocese of Durham said.

On 2 February 2010, Shaun Dalby, aged 28, was killed by a car deliberately driven in pursuit of him along a footpath. The driver of the car was originally charged with murder, but her plea of guilty to manslaughter was accepted. She was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, and banned from driving for ten years.

Shaun’s mother, Christine Dalby, was devastated by his death, and by what she saw as the lightness of his killer’s sentence. She wanted to erect a fitting memorial for him at Quarrington Hill churchyard, where he was buried. St Paul’s, Quarrington Hill, was closed in 1991, and the building was later demolished, but the churchyard remains open for burials.

Mrs Dalby wrote to the parish priest, the Revd John Livesley, saying she would like to put a headstone and kerbstone on her son’s grave. Fr Livesley replied that it was the Chancellor of the diocese of Durham who had ultimate authority over memorials in the churchyard, and that a parish priest could authorise memorials only if they conformed to a series of regulations issued by the Chancellor.

He pointed out that the current diocesan regulations explicitly forbade kerbstones, although there were some graves, nearly all old, where there were kerbstones. He said that the PCC had unanimously rejected Mrs Dalby’s proposal, but that it could be approved if it were modified so that there were no kerbstones.

Mrs Dalby made a modified application to Fr Livesley, which he approved. She then installed a memorial that was not in accordance with the approval granted. It contained a photograph of Shaun, a crest of Sunderland Football Club, which he had supported, and a depiction of a Sunderland scarf in red and white around the edges of the memorial.

Within days of its being installed, Fr Livesley received an email from a Billy Jones, describing his shock when he visited his mother’s grave and discovered “a very unsightly headstone”. Mr Jones said he “felt very insulted, as our family were not permitted to have the headstone of choice of our late mother”.

Fr Livesley went to the churchyard to investigate, and, at his request, the Archdeacon of Durham wrote to the memorial stonemasons instructing them to remove the memorial. He never received a reply, however, and the memorial remained in place. The Archdeacon visited Mrs Dalby, and found her to be in poor health. He told her that if she wished to retain the present memorial, she would need to make an application, and she would be given help with the paperwork. Because of the pastoral situation, it was agreed by the diocese that the fees otherwise payable would be waived.

A public notice of the petition was displayed in August 2015, and the diocesan registry received a letter from Mr Jones complaining that his family had not been allowed to erect the sort of headstone they would have liked over his mother’s grave. He said a lot of people were “disgusted”, and that it was “about time respect was shown for this churchyard by God’s workers”.

He wrote that the Dalby memorial had been erected with “blatant disregard for regulations”, and that it was not the only one erected in breach of the rules. He said that if the memorial were left in place, his family would have “no other choice but to replace our mother’s memorial with our first choice of stone, and seek all costs from the church”. Mr Jones’s father also wrote to the registry, saying that the churchyard was “disgraceful, sinful, unsafe and [gave] no respect to the good people at rest there”.

Mr Jones and his father declined to become formal objectors to Mrs Dalby’s petition. They said that they had “suffered enough stress and sadness”, and that the “church should pay for a new headstone” for Mrs Jones.

The written complaints were sent to Mrs Dalby, who replied that she “was just doing what other people had already done by putting pictures of their loved ones on the graves, and other things which [they] had loved in life”. She said she was in a poor state of health, having had a couple of strokes, and that the whole situation was affecting her health.

The Chancellor of the diocese of Durham, His Honour Canon Rupert Bursell QC, said that it was clear that Mrs Dalby had applied for one memorial, but had, quite deliberately and with full knowledge that rules applied to memorials in churchyards, introduced a very different one. Once that memorial was introduced other than in accordance with the authorisation given, it became a trespass, and was liable to be removed. If Mrs Dalby wished to retain the memorial, she would have to apply for a faculty, and explain her actions.

Her explanation was, in effect, a cry from the heart, based on her son’s apparent wishes and the tragic circumstances of his death, coupled with a comparison of other memorials in the churchyard that did not conform to the churchyard rules.

The Chancellor said that he was not surprised that Mrs Dalby was still having enormous difficulty in coming to terms with her grief. Every grief was unique and individual, he said, and in this instance it was exacerbated by her son’s early demise, and the form it had taken. But that should not be seen as in any way downplaying the grief of others whose loved ones were buried in the same churchyard; and those memorials were equally reminders of other people’s deep grief, as was demonstrated by the letters from the Jones family.

It was also apparent, the Chancellor said, that, once breaches of the rules had been allowed, others felt that they were entitled to follow suit, with an incremental effect on the whole character of the churchyard. The PCC was reminded that they were entitled, if they thought it was appropriate to do so, to petition for the removal of other monuments and accretions that had crept in in the past, and which did not comply with the churchyard rules.

An addition to a memorial such as the Sunderland FC crest was permitted only if written proof were provided to the diocesan registry of the Club’s agreement to such a display. That was normal procedure in relation any crest or military badge; but no such consent had been provided by Mrs Dalby. The Chancellor said, however, that he had never known such a request to a football club or regiment to be refused; so no doubt consent would have been forthcoming if the Club had been asked.

As for the question of the deceased’s portrait, there was a growing demand for such plaques, and some had appeared in Durham churchyards without proper permission having been sought or given. None the less, the Chancellor said, each memorial in a churchyard must be given individual consideration; he bore in mind that Quarrington Hill churchyard was not an ancient churchyard, but it was most certainly a country churchyard.

Mrs Dalby had condemned the churchyard as having “no tradition”. The Chancellor pointed out that “traditions can, and do, change, and what is ‘traditional’ in one churchyard may be inappropriate in another.” In the light of Mrs Dalby’s condemnation, the Chancellor made a second visit to the churchyard, and found that, in the whole churchyard, apart from Shaun Dalby’s memorial, there was only one other photographic plaque, which had been erected in 1974. That plaque was so faded that the deceased’s depiction was non-existent, and it detracted greatly from the look of the memorial as a whole.

Relatives had their own memories and photographs, but future generations did not, the Chancellor said; and it was therefore important that any representation of the deceased remained identifiable for future generations, and that the plaque did not disintegrate or fade so as to detract from the memorial itself or its immediate surroundings.

The Chancellor said that he had “reluctantly” concluded that Mr Dalby’s memorial could not remain as it was. Mrs Dalby’s flagrant disregard of the churchyard rules and the resulting trespass would be sufficient grounds for ordering its removal forthwith.

Bearing in mind the whole pastoral situation, however, the Chancellor was prepared to grant permission for the memorial to remain if the red-and-white scarf was removed from its edge, and the deceased’s portrait plaque was removed. The Sunderland Club crest could remain as long as written permission was obtained from the Club.

Because of the special pastoral consideration, the Chancellor was prepared to consider the addition of a small uncoloured portrait of the deceased incised into the stone.

If any of those conditions were not met, the Archdeacon of Durham was directed to have the whole memorial removed.

Forthcoming Events

21-22 February 2020
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature
With Sam Wells, Catherine Fox, Mark Oakley, Suzannah Lipscomb and many others. 
See the full programme

26 March 2020
Theology Slam Live Final
Theology Slam is back, continuing its search for the most engaging young voices on theology and the contemporary world. Find out more

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)