THE establishment of a family grave, where all the members of a family could be buried together, was to be encouraged, and provided a good enough special reason for permitting an exhumation and reburial, despite the presumption that Christian burial was permanent, Chancellor Alexander McGregor ruled in the Consistory Court of the diocese of Oxford.
Mandy Ramshaw submitted a petition for a faculty to authorise the exhumation of the cremated remains of her mother, Jacqueline Ramshaw, who died in May 1985, from the churchyard of St Margaret’s, Mapledurham, with the intention of reinterring them in Chester-le-Street Cemetery, in County Durham.
Miss Ramshaw and her parents had moved to Reading in 1967, and she and her father had visited the grave of Jacqueline Ramshaw each week. In 2000, she and her father moved back to the north-east, and she said that they found it emotionally difficult not to be able to continue those weekly visits.
Miss Ramshaw’s father died last July, and he indicated in his will that he wanted his cremated remains to be buried with those of his late wife. Miss Ramshaw was informed that it was not possible to confirm that her mother’s plot in Mapledurham would be able to accommodate her own cremated remains in due course, in addition to those of her parents.
Miss Ramshaw had acquired a plot in the cemetery in Chester-le-Street which would be able to accommodate the cremated remains of both her parents, and, in due course, her own.
Miss Ramshaw stated that she considered herself bound to honour her father’s wishes that his remains be interred with those of her mother. She stated that, being an only child and single, she found the thought of her parents being 300 miles away from where she lived, and the resulting inability to tend their grave, “an awful prospect”, as it was “emotionally very important” to her for them “not to be torn apart from one another”.
She also pointed out that, even if her father’s remains were to be interred at Mapledurham, it would still be necessary for her mother’s remains to be exhumed in order to make room. She therefore asked the court to look favourably on her request to move her mother’s ashes “to a location where all the members of the family can be together in the place where we felt we belonged”.
The principles of law governing the exhumation from consecrated ground were established in the decision of the Court of Arches in the Blagdon Cemetery case ( Fam 299). Since the Court of Arches was the appeal court from the diocesan courts in the Province of Canterbury, the principles it laid down were legally binding on all diocesan courts in the Province of Canterbury.
In the Blagdon case, the Court of Arches held that there was a presumption that Christian burial was permanent, that remains should not be portable, and that a faculty for exhumation would be granted only exceptionally. It was for the Chancellor to decide on a balance of probabilities whether the facts of a particular case were to be treated as exceptional.
The Chancellor said that the most substantial part of Miss Ramshaw’s case was to move her mother’s ashes to a location where the members of the family could be together in a place where they felt they belonged. The burial together of the remains of all the family in the triple plot at Chester-le-Street was, according to the Court of Arches, to be encouraged, and could provide special reasons for permitting exhumation, despite the lapse of a long period of time since burial.
The Chancellor accepted that Miss Ramshaw genuinely intended to create a family grave of that nature. The lapse of a substantial period of time since the original burial would not prevent such an intention amounting to a special reason for permitting exhumation.
Miss Ramshaw was given 21 days to provide the Registry with a copy of the grant to her of an exclusive right of burial in the plot in Chester-le-Street. If she did so, there would be a decree for a faculty authorising the exhumation of the cremated remains of her mother from Mapledurham churchyard, on condition that they were reinterred as soon as practicable in the plot in Chester-le-Street cemetery.