A FAMILY’s change of mind about where the remains of a relative should be interred did not amount to an exceptional circumstance which justified the granting of a faculty for exhumation, the Consistory Court of the diocese of Oxford ruled.
Kathrin Tollis submitted a petition for a faculty to authorise the exhumation of the cremated remains of her husband, Bruce Hamilton Tollis, from the churchyard of St Peter’s, Wootton, Boars Hill, in Oxford. Mr Tollis died in September 2013, and his remains were interred in November 2014.
Mrs Tollis is a practising Roman Catholic. Her husband was baptised, but he was not a practising member of the RC Church or any other. He had shown no concern about where his remains should be interred, and left it to his wife to do what she felt most comfortable with. After some time she chose St Peter’s churchyard, and her children agreed with her choice.
After the interment, Mrs Tollis said she “came to realise quite quickly that [she] had made a serious error of judgement”, and that she should have taken her husband’s ashes to Antibes, in France, a place to which he was attached and where he had spent a greater part of his time. She felt that she had superimposed her own religious faith on her husband’s religious detachment.
There was no memorial marking Mr Tollis’s burial place at St Peter’s, and his widow said that she had an “acute and distressing feeling of incompletion, and a very real need to have a sadly mistaken decision put right”.
The Priest-in-Charge of St Peter’s, the Revd Jon Williams, said that he supported the principle that buried remains should not be disturbed, but said that, in Mrs Tollis’s case, he did not oppose her petition. Mr Tollis’s children and other members of his family also supported the petition.
The Chancellor of Oxford, the Revd Alexander McGregor, said that he was legally bound to follow the principles of law governing exhumation issued by the Court of Arches in the Blagdon Cemetery case ( Fam 299).
Although Mrs Tollis found herself in a stressful situation, and had serious concerns about the choice she made in 2014, her state of mind did not approach the “serious psychiatric or psychological problems”, where there was medical evidence demonstrating a link with the location of the grave.
Although Mr Tollis had had strong connections with Antibes, he had not expressed any particular wishes about the place where he should be buried. It was not, therefore, a case where the wishes of a deceased had not been complied with, and where a family were trying to put matters right, the Chancellor said.
Mr Tollis was not a practising Christian, and, therefore, St Peter’s churchyard may not have had any particular significance for him; but there was no evidence that he would have objected to being buried there, and Mrs Tollis’s decision to inter his remains there could not be criticised.
The Chancellor said that this case could not be distinguished from what the Court of Arches categorised as a change of mind on the part of those responsible for the interment. There was also the desirability of securing equal treatment, so far as circumstances permitted, between petitioners.
In the absence of special circumstances which would constitute good and proper reason for making an exception to the norm that Christian burial was final, it would be unfair to other petitioners or potential petitioners to permit exhumation in Mrs Tollis’s case.
Others in an equivalent position would not, under the framework established by the Court of Arches in the Blagdon case, be granted permission, the Chancellor said, and the decision of the ecclesiastical courts, as much as any other court, must be taken on a principled and consistent basis.