THE Chancellor of the diocese of Lichfield, sitting in the Consistory Court, has ruled that the presence of particular remains in a grave having become the cause of distress or conflict was capable of being an exceptional circumstance justifying exhumation.
The Chancellor, Judge Stephen Eyre QC, therefore granted a faculty for the exhumation of cremated remains from a family grave because the family believed that the deceased had sexually abused one of the children of the family.
Owing to the sensitive nature of the proceedings, the Chancellor took the unusual step of protecting the identity of those involved, and of the churchyards concerned. Names were therefore anonymised.
A and B were a husband and wife who had been married for some forty years. It was the second marriage for both of them, and each had children from their previous marriages. C was the granddaughter of B, being the child of B’s daughter from her first marriage.
B died in 2008, and her remains were interred in a closed churchyard which already contained the remains of her parents. In 2014, C caused her solicitors to send a letter to A, informing him that she was going to bring forward allegations that he had sexually abused her when she was aged between five and 13. She set out an account of prolonged and repeated sexual abuse, which had had a lasting and harmful effect upon her.
A did not face criminal proceedings during his lifetime in relation to C’s allegations, however, and, having died in November 2016, he was no longer alive to answer them. His children questioned some aspects of C’s assertions, and rejected the allegations.
The Chancellor said that he was not in a position to make any determination as to what happened between C and A, and was not purporting to do so. But there was no reason to doubt that C was setting out the truth as she genuinely believed it to be. It was sufficient to note, the Chancellor said, that C’s account was put forward in good faith, and that it was accepted as truthful by C’s parents, and her great-aunts and -uncles, B’s siblings.
B’s sister, D, and her husband intend, in due course, to be buried in the grave where B and her parents are interred. When they learnt of C’s allegations, they caused solicitors’ letters to be sent to A, saying that he no longer had permission to be buried in the same grave as B and her parents.
In 2015, D contacted the then Vicar of the church in whose churchyard B was buried, and obtained an assurance that A would not be buried there. There was a new vicar at the church when A died in November 2016. D then went to see the new vicar, who also assured D that A would not be interred in the plot containing the remains of B and her parents.
The vicar appeared to have forgotten his assurance to D, however, and, in March 2017, A’s cremated remains were interred in the plot with B and her parents. A’s daughter subsequently obtained a confirmatory faculty authorising the interment, which had already taken place. When D learnt what had happened, she approached another priest who was then overseeing matters at the church in the vicar’s absence, and a meeting was held with the Archdeacon and members of each family.
It was proposed that A’s remains should be exhumed and interred at another churchyard, which contained the remains of his parents. The incumbents of both churches agreed to that course. At first, some of A’s children agreed to that proposal, but later withdrew their agreement to the exhumation. D then sought a faculty for the exhumation and reburial of A’s remains.
A chancellor has a discretion to order an exhumation, but the starting-point in exercising that discretion is the presumption of the permanence of Christian burial, based on the theological understanding that burial or interment of cremated remains is to be seen as the act of committing the mortal remains of the departed into the hands of God as represented by his Church. Exhumation is to be exceptional, and the Consistory Court must determine whether there are special circumstances.
The Chancellor said that, in the present case, there was a deliberate decision to inter A’s remains in the same grave as those of his wife of 40 years. Moreover, C’s allegations, although put forward in good faith, and genuinely believed by C and her family, were not accepted by A’s children.
Against those considerations was the distress which was felt by B’s descendants and her siblings at the presence of A’s remains in the same grave as B and her parents. The grave had become the focus of distress and grievance, and, in that regard, it was particularly significant, the Chancellor said, that the grave contained the remains not just of B, but also of her parents.
It followed that the presence of A’s remains had an impact not only on B’s descendants, but also on her siblings attending to mourn their parents.
The Chancellor said that it was also of particular note that, before A was interred, D had received assurances from the vicar that A’s remains would not be placed in the same grave. If the vicar had remembered that, he would have been unlikely to have supported A’s interment. It was also highly regrettable, the Chancellor said, that the court was not given the full picture when authorising the interment, or at the time of the subsequent petition for a confirmatory faculty. If the position had been fully set out in advance of the interment, and, in particular, if the view of D and her siblings had been known, then it was almost inconceivable, the Chancellor said, that permission would have been given for the interment in the first place.
Taken together, the Chancellor was satisfied that those matters amounted to exceptional circumstances such as to be capable of justifying exhumation, and that the proposed exhumation and re-interment were justified and appropriate.