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A lighter touch in policing memorials

by
20 January 2017

Churchyard regulators should not prevent grieving families’ choice of gravestone, says Ted Harrison

NORTH NEWS AND PICTURES

Personalised memorial: Christine Dalby was told to remove a depiction of a Sunderland FC football scarf from the gravestone of her son, Shaun

Personalised memorial: Christine Dalby was told to remove a depiction of a Sunderland FC football scarf from the gravestone of her son, Shaun

ONE of my greatest delights, when wandering around an old churchyard, is to look for the truly eccentric memorials. None comes as bizarre as that to Mad Jack Fuller in Brightling, Sussex. He was a local squire and a celebrated folly-builder. His mausoleum is a huge pyramid. It was once rumoured that he was entombed inside sitting at a table with a glass of wine.

Mad Jack was truly a “one off”. Yet there are hundreds of other older graves to be found around the country with their own sense of the quirky. Odd epitaphs abound, some punning with a name.

A memorial to a certain John Penny can be found in Wimborne, Dorset:

 

Reader if cash thou art
In want of any
Dig 4 feet deep
And thou wilt find a Penny.

 

Others give the deceased the last laugh, or the living their revenge. Anna Wallace of Ribbesford, Worcestershire, is remembered:

 

The children of Israel wanted bread
And the Lord sent them manna,
Old clerk Wallace wanted a wife,
And the Devil sent him Anna.

 

There are also headstones telling morality tales, or warning sinners that they should mend their ways.

All of these quirky headstones and epitaphs have three things in common: they are historical; they have given much fun to subsequent generations; and they would never be allowed to be erected in a churchyard today.

Wander down to the new burial section of any country churchyard and you will find rows and rows of dull, uniform headstones devoid of interest to any but the immediate family. Like a housing estate of bungalows, they are utilitarian, and entirely without character or individuality. Some are regularly replenished with flowers (to be disposed of, commands a bossy notice, only in the appropriate place), but many are neglected. Every now and again, the churchyard motor mower trims the grass around. Otherwise they stand forlorn, inconspicuous, and utterly uninspiring.

 

AS RECENT consistory-court rulings have confirmed, church regulations must be followed to the letter (News, 4 November and 6 May). Size, design, material, and wording are rigorously prescribed. Indeed, church synods spend much time debating the small print of the legislation. Parents whose children have died young, who want a headstone that reflects the child’s character to help them through their grief, are told in no uncertain terms that most comforting images of childhood are forbidden. No carved teddy bears or Thomas the Tank Engine.

It is not unreasonable that, as in all walks of life, from sport to town planning, rules exist. In this area, they are a safeguard to prevent misuse of consecrated ground round a church. Today, we might find the plethora of styles in a Victorian churchyard amusing or fascinating, but in their day some of the most conspicuous memorials were raised for inappropriate reasons. They were ways of displaying wealth and status. Families vied to produce the most splendid and eye-catching monuments.

Also, the regulations are a check on the diktats of fashion. The morbid symbolism of the 19th century does not always reflect a Christian understanding of death. Churchyards are shared spaces, and what one family raises as a memorial should not distress another set of relatives with a family member laid to rest near by.

A welcoming church should not, however, present such a totally unyielding face to the outside world. A church needing to prioritise mission and evangelisation should not spend its time and money on enforcing “jobsworth” small print.

There can be few of the clergy who have not had the heartbreaking duty of explaining to relatives why they cannot have the memorial they had planned. I remember, when I served on a PCC a few years ago, discussing how best to tell a family who had placed a wooden heart on a mother’s grave that it had to be removed.

 

THE regulations are born of good intent, but need to be enforced with far greater pragmatism and flexibility. The church is not there to be a judge of good taste.

What is low-brow and tatty to some brings comfort to others. Roadside shrines, often established at the sites of fatal accidents, are decorated in all kinds of ways. Cellophane-wrapped flowers, colourful teddy bears, and hearts draped with plastic ribbons; nothing that would ever be allowed in a churchyard.

Popular taste usually clashes with the middle-class standards often enshrined in church legislation, which employs such terms as “decent order” and “appropriate to the surroundings” to regulate choice. But these terms are, arguably, entirely subjective. They express a narrow band of social values. Church legislators need to be more aware of their prejudices and the temporary nature of the artistic fashions of their social class rather than assume that they are upholding absolute cultural standards.

Churchyard legislation seems to be dictated entirely by considerations of visual impact. The rules were largely drawn up to express neatness and uniformity above anything else. Yet the Church’s first responsibility should surely be to the families of those who have died. A funeral is an opportunity to connect with the many who do not go to church, to bring the gospel of comfort.

Choosing a headstone is an important part of the grieving process. If, instead of being allowed to choose a design that meets their needs and aspirations, the family are forced to conform to a set of — to them — meaningless and arbitrary visual standards, a great opportunity is lost. Indeed, the whole experience may put the family off the church, and they never return. They will feel they have no connection.

In drawing up churchyard legislation, pastoral considerations should generally take precedence over tidiness and order. There needs to be some monitoring of gravestones, to make sure nothing insulting goes up or offensive is written — but control should be with the lightest touch.

Today, few, if any, witty epitaphs are being written, and no life stories are being carved into the stone. There is just basic information. What will future generations learn about us? What a dull lot, they’ll conclude from our gravestones.

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