Court refuses faculty to amend inscription on gravestone of murdered man

29 June 2018

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Holy Trinity, Drayton Parslow

Holy Trinity, Drayton Parslow

THE affront and offence to parishioners, the local community, and others, and the reopening of old wounds which would be caused by amending the inscription on a memorial headstone in the churchyard of Holy Trinity, Drayton Parslow, justified refusing a faculty to permit the amendment, the Consistory Court of the diocese of Oxford ruled.

The petition for a faculty was submitted by Mark Alexander (“the petitioner”) to amend the inscription on the memorial to his father, Samuel Alexander, who died in September 2009 and was buried in the churchyard in April 2010. The existing inscription, which was set up in 2014, mentions the names and dates of Samuel Alexander, and describes him as “Father, Teacher, Linguist”. There is an empty line above those words on which the petitioner wished to insert the single word “Beloved”.

The Vicar, the Revd Simon Faulks, and John Preston, a churchwarden, opposed the petition, and a letter of objection was received from two others in response to a public notice. In 2010, the petitioner had been convicted of the murder of his father, Samuel Alexander, and was now serving a sentence of life imprisonment with a minimum period of 16 years to be served.

When authority was granted in 2014 for the introduction of the memorial with its current inscription, the original proposal had been for the inclusion of the word “Beloved” above “Father, Teacher, Linguist”. The PCC had expressed objections to that inscription, but a compromise was reached on the basis that the word “Beloved” would be omitted.

The Consistory Court now had to consider afresh the petition for an amendment of the inscription.

As a matter of law, nobody has a right to introduce a memorial in a churchyard. But, provided a proposed memorial does not contain anything that is contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England, the Consistory Court has a discretion whether to authorise it. That discretion had to be exercised judicially, taking into account relevant matters and disregarding irrelevant ones. Those same principles applied in a petition to alter an existing memorial or to alter an inscription.

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The Chancellor, the Worshipful and Revd Alexander McGregor, said that the Consistory Court should not allow a memorial that could reasonably amount to an affront or offence to others. It was not enough, he said, “for someone simply to say that a particular memorial would offend him; the court [had] to decide whether it would be reasonable for a person to be offended”. Otherwise, it would confer a veto on a person who did not want a particular memorial.

The court also had to have regard to needs of the friends and relations of those buried in the churchyard. The onus was on the petitioner to show that his needs and wishes in relation to the commemoration of his father, and those of his family, outweighed any relevant contrary matters.

The petitioner had the support of his mother and his late father’s two sisters for his petition. He argued that that the term “Father” on the memorial was indicative not just of the paternal relationship to him, but of the part played by his father in relation to the family as a whole.

The court had received a letter from the petitioner’s mother describing the relationship between the petitioner and his father in positive terms, and concluding that the petitioner could not therefore have killed his father. The Chancellor said that since the petitioner had been convicted of murder, the Consistory Court took judicial notice of the Crown Court’s verdict.

The chaplain of the prison where the petitioner was serving his sentence had also provided a letter of support stating that the petitioner “loved his father and indeed continues to love him. Thus the phrase ‘beloved father’ would seem to me to be entirely apposite.” The Chancellor said that the prison chaplain’s letter took account only of what might be apposite so far as the petitioner’s wishes were concerned and was of limited assistance to the court.

The Rector said that those who were previously involved in deciding to omit the word “beloved” did so “out of pastoral sensitivity to those closest to the case” and “also to the whole community”. Other parishioners had become involved as witnesses in the petitioner’s trial or had become involved in other similar ways. The Chancellor said that there was force in what the Rector said and allowing an amendment to the inscription would have the effect of “re-opening past wounds in the community”.

The remarks of Judge Reddihough in the Reading Crown Court when sentencing the petitioner on 10 September 2010 were of importance, the Chancellor said, because they were based on a careful consideration of the petitioner’s relationship with his father and the circumstances relating to the murder.

Judge Reddihough had referred to the steps that the petitioner had taken to conceal his father’s body and had left it to decompose for a time. He “took very considerable steps to bury the body in three layers of mortar and a final layer of cement in the back garden of the home” that the petitioner had shared with his father. Thereafter, he had covered the concrete grave with soil so that it should not be discovered. There was also clearly some attempt to burn parts of the body so as to destroy it — or parts of it — which might show evidence of particular injuries.

The petitioner had also pretended to neighbours, and ultimately to the police, that his father was still alive. The judge also referred to the petitioner being convicted of his father’s murder “on very clear evidence”.

The Chancellor said that the petitioner’s wish to amend the inscription was at odds with the sacrilegious manner in which he had treated his father’s body after killing him. That itself was enough to bring the balance down against the petitioner, and was inconsistent with an amendment of the inscription so that it would imply that the petitioner loved his father.

That was so, irrespective of what the petitioner’s true inner feelings were, the Chancellor said, because a memorial in a churchyard was a public, not a private, commemoration of the deceased.

It would, “objectively considered, be an affront and an offence to the parishioners at large for a memorial in a churchyard, a memorial marking the place where his body now lies, to state that the late Samuel Alexander was a ‘Beloved’ father when it was known that his son not only murdered him but subsequently treated his body in the ways described” by Judge Reddihough in the Crown Court.

Samuel Alexander’s murder had been a traumatic event in the community, the Chancellor said, and, if the Consistory Court were to permit the amendment, that could be seen as an expression of its disagreement with the verdict and sentence passed by the Crown Court. Moreover, the petitioner continued to deny killing his father, and the amendment sought to the inscription would be likely to appear to the public at large as an expression of that denial. That was something that the Consistory Court should not facilitate, the Chancellor declared.

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