AN EXHUMATION of cremated ashes for the purpose of taking out a teaspoonful to have it incorporated into a ring was “unusual”, but it did not constitute an exception to the presumption that Christian burial was permanent, the Consistory Court of the diocese of Leeds ruled, refusing an a petition for a faculty.
The court’s judgment was anonymised to protect the privacy of the family concerned, and the deceased was identified only as SMF. The petitioner for the exhumation was the widow of SMF, who died 16 years ago at the age of 38, and whose cremated remains were interred in the consecrated part of a municipal cemetery. The petitioner said that his death was “a terrible shock”, and left her with two children: a son, aged 14, and a daughter, aged seven.
SMF’s father, who had been a father-figure to his grandchildren, died in February, and his widow had saved some of his ashes to have a ring made. SMF’s daughter, now aged 23, wished to have a ring made from some of SMF’s ashes.
The petitioner said that she had consulted a company called Ashes into Glass, which was established in 2006. The Chancellor said that he had “carried out an internet search of ‘Ashes into Glass’, which threw up a commercial undertaking from premises in Billericay, Essex, as ‘Ashes into Glass’.”
He then said: “This may or may not be the venture identified by the petitioner.”
Ashes into Glass says that it “use[s] traditional techniques combined with our own unique, patented processes”. The company says that it requires one teaspoonful of the ashes per order, and would then return the unused ashes with the completed order. The stone in the ring is offered in a variety of colours.
The petitioner said that she was sure that SMF would want that done for “his beloved daughter who . . . would love to have a memento made from his ashes in memory of her dad”, and it would be “a gift from one of the most loyal fathers to a then seven-year-old child . . . who was absolutely devastated by the sudden loss of her father and who to this day has never really gotten over this”. That ring, it was said, “would go a long way to helping her to heal”.
When SMF died, 16 years ago, the technology to use ashes in that way was not available, but it was available now. The petitioner had contacted a commercial undertaking started in 2006, and had been told that her daughter could have the ring made. The petitioner sought permission to open SMF’s casket to take out a teaspoonful of his ashes and then close the casket and put it back.
The Diocesan Chancellor of Leeds, the Worshipful Mark Hill QC, said that he had to determine the petition on its own merits and ask himself whether the petitioner had demonstrated that the facts of her case were such as to constitute an exception to the general principle of law and Christian doctrine, that there should be no disturbance to cremated remains interred in consecrated ground.
The petitioner’s case was that modern technology now made possible the creation of a ring that could incorporate in its fabrication a portion of a person’s cremated ashes. Some might find that practice “distasteful”, the Chancellor said; some might think it did not “sit easily with Christian teaching on the body, the soul, and the hope of resurrection”, and some might think “wearing a burnt fragment of the remains of a loved one to be mawkish, whereas for others a genuine and abiding sense of comfort might be derived from the symbolism and personal connection”.
The Chancellor said that he was satisfied that the petitioner was “sincerely motivated in her wish to honour her husband, a good and decent man, and to try to ease the burden of grief and sadness for her daughter“. But the Chancellor concluded that the facts of this case were not exceptional so as to rebut the strong legal and doctrinal presumption against the disturbance of human remains.
Advances in technology to allow something which was not possible at the date of the original interment could not be considered to be exceptional. There would always be the possibility of fresh expressions of grief as societal practice and scientific know-how evolved.
When SMF’s ashes were interred 16 years ago, what was now proposed was not in the contemplation of his family, the undertaker, the cemetery owner, or the Church. But that did not detract from the concept of permanence being part, at least, of the intention of those committing the remains to a consecrated burial plot.
Modern technology, which gave new options to family members that were not available years earlier, could not be seen as exceptional, the Chancellor ruled. If changing fashions of mourning and the availability of alternative uses for cremated ashes were to justify the routine exhumation of human remains, the finality of Christian burial would be stripped of all its meaning, he said.
In the rare cases where a faculty for an exhumation might be granted, it was almost invariably on the basis that the remains were to be reinterred in consecrated ground. In this case, part, at least, of SMF’s remains would not be re-interred in consecrated ground, but would, instead, be incorporated through an industrial process into a piece of jewellery. The Chancellor took the traditional view that cremated ashes should be treated in like fashion to a human body, and interred in one place, undivided.
Although he had “the greatest of sympathy” for the petitioner and her daughter, the Chancellor said that he could see no basis on which exhumation might be permitted. The case was “admittedly unusual, but it [was] not exceptional”, and the law constrained him to dismiss the petition and refuse the request for exhumation.