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Consistory court rules on dispute over headstone

03 February 2017


Disputed: the original headstone (top) and the later tablet (front), at St John the Baptist, Armitage, near Rugeley

Disputed: the original headstone (top) and the later tablet (front), at St John the Baptist, Armitage, near Rugeley

THE Consistory Court of the diocese of Lichfield was called on to settle a dispute between the children of a deceased person and their step-father, regarding the headstones over a grave.

There could not be two separate memorials on the same plot, the court ruled, and it was inappropriate that a memorial should recognise one relationship to the pointed exclusion of other important relationships which were equally worthy of mention.

The deceased, Susannah Allison, had been married first to Alan Matthewson, who died in 1978, aged 48. His cremated remains were interred in the churchyard of St John the Baptist, Armitage, and the headstone over his grave described him as “Beloved husband of Susannah Cragg Matthewson” and “the dear father of Alan, Paul and Gordon”. About four or five years later, she married William Allison.

When she died in April 2016, her cremated remains were interred in the plot containing those of her first husband. Her sons by her first marriage, Paul and Gordon Matthewson (“the petitioners”) had the existing headstone removed to have an inscription added, recording Mrs Allison’s age and date of death with the words “In loving memory of Susannah Cragg, a dear wife, mom and nan”.

In the interval during which the headstone had been removed for the additional inscription to be added, William Allison approached a churchwarden of St John the Baptist, and sought permission to place a memorial on the plot. The churchwarden consulted the acting interim minister covering the parish during an interregnum, the Revd Roger Gilbert, who gave permission for Mr Allison to place another memorial on the plot.

That memorial took the form of a flat tablet with the words “Treasured memories of Susannah Cragg Allison, wife of Bill”, gave her date of death and age at that time, and concluded with the words “Love you, God bless till we meet again.” The memorial did not conform to the churchyard regulations because it was flat and of polished stone, but the churchyard contained several non-conforming memorials.

The new memorial was placed at the head of the plot, but, when the stonemason who was restoring the original headstone to its position found it, he moved it to the foot of the grave. Mr Allison then moved it so that it was placed a little further down from the original headstone. The petitioners sought a faculty for the removal of the new memorial.

They pointed out that it did not conform to the churchyard regulations, but their main point was that there should be only a single memorial to a particular person on a grave. They believed that the wording and positioning of the new memorial was disrespectful to the memory of their father.

Mr Allison said that, at the time he sought permission and arranged for the new memorial to be put in position, he was unaware of the intention to add Mrs Allison to the existing memorial. He said that the current dispute was disturbing his grieving for his wife of 32 years. The petitioners acknowledged that it was an unhappy situation, and that it was helping neither them nor Mr Allison to grieve.

The Chancellor, His Honour Judge Eyre QC, said that the real difficulty was not that the new memorial did not conform to the churchyard regulations, given that there were other non-conforming memorials in this churchyard. The dispute had to be approached in the light of the purpose of a churchyard as being a suitable and seemly resting place for the remains of those interred there, and the court must seek to ensure that the memorials which were installed in a churchyard were compatible with that purpose.

There should be only a single memorial at the point of interment of the person whose remains were interred, and it would only be in the most exceptional of cases that it could be said to be appropriate for there to be more than one memorial to the same person at the same point in the churchyard. The memorial must be consistent with the need for the churchyard to be a seemly resting place for the person commemorated, and others.

That the memorial should not be a source of dispute, offence, or controversy derived from that need for seemliness, the Chancellor said, and the view that it was inappropriate for there to be the inclusion of reference to one bereaved person to the exclusion of another also derived from the need for seemliness. The occasion of choosing the wording for a memorial should not be used as an opportunity to settle scores.

A memorial could perfectly properly be silent as to the relationships of a deceased person, and could simply record that person’s name and dates of birth and death, with perhaps the addition of a simple phrase such as “In loving memory of”. It was also appropriate for a memorial to record the significant relationships of the deceased.

What there could not be, however, the Chancellor said, was “a memorial which recognises a relationship with some persons while deliberately remaining silent about other important relationships which are equally worthy of mention”.

The current position — with two memorials in different terms, and describing the deceased by different names — was unseemly, the Chancellor ruled, since it had “the effect, at best, of generating confusion and uncertainty”, and ran “the risk of highlighting controversy and drawing attention to discord, and that would be an even worse outcome”.

The Chancellor concluded that the appropriate course was for Susannah Allison to be commemorated on the original headstone. The new memorial was conducive to confusion and indicative of disharmony, and would have to be removed. The commemoration of her life, however, must reflect her marriage of more than 30 years to William Allison, besides her marriage to Alan Matthewson. Any commemoration of her life which mentioned one without the other was incomplete.

The current wording on the headstone was inappropriate because it amounted to a pointed exclusion of the important relationship with Mr Allison. The new memorial was also inappropriate, because it reflected neither the deceased’s first loving marriage, nor her relationship with her children and grandchildren. There was space on the headstone for a short additional inscription.

A faculty would issue authorising and directing the removal of the new memorial and its return to Mr Allison. The Chancellor could not compel the petitioners to add words to the original headstone; however, he made the addition of a suitable inscription a precondition to the headstone’s remaining in position, and the removal of the new memorial.

The faculty authorising the removal of the new memorial will not take effect until the petitioners have confirmed that they are prepared to cause the new wording to be added. If such confirmation was not received by 4 p.m. on 3 March 2017, the Chancellor indicated that he would invite the Archdeacon to petition for a faculty for the removal of both the original headstone and the new memorial, and for them to be replaced by a single memorial bearing wording directed by the court.

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