A CULTURAL tradition that caused problems in the burial of the remains of a widow with those of her husband amounted to exceptional circumstances, the Diocesan chancellor of Southwark has ruled.
This justified a departure from the norm that Christian burial in consecrated ground was permanent, the Worshipful Philip Petchey ruled in the Consistory Court of Southwark last month. He granted a faculty for exhumation.
Thuy Chan Hoang petitioned for the exhumation of the remains of her father, Nhat Tung Hoang. He died in 1987, and his remains were buried in a double-depth grave in the consecrated part of Lambeth Cemetery, which is owned and operated by the London Borough of Lambeth.
Neither Mr Hoang nor his family is Christian, and the family was not aware that the grave was in the consecrated part of the cemetery. They describe the family’s beliefs as Taoist.
The grave had been acquired by Mr Hoang’s family under a 50-year lease “for the purposes of burial”. The family, therefore, believed that the interment was of limited duration, and that the lease would expire in 2037.
Mr Hoang’s widow, Dao Anh Ly, died in 2018. She had wished her remains to be buried next to those of her husband, but cultural tradition prohibited burying a female on top of the remains of the head of the family. The family asked Lambeth Cemetery whether it would be possible for her remains to be buried next to those of her husband, but that was deemed not possible.
The family then bought a plot in Beckenham Cemetery, and that is where the remains of Mr Hoang’s widow were buried. The intention was that, in due course, his remains would be transferred there when the duration of the lease for his grave expired in 2037.
The Chancellor said that permanence was the norm of Christian burial, and that permission to exhume remains was granted only exceptionally. This was a situation in which the family were not Christians, however, and did not know that the grave was on consecrated ground. The facts amounted to exceptional circumstances that justified a faculty to permit exhumation of Mr Hoang’s remains.
It was possible that the plot in Beckenham Cemetery was not consecrated, but the Chancellor did not regard that as a “weighty matter”. “The disturbance of human remains should be avoided if possible, whether from consecrated ground or unconsecrated ground.”
The Chancellor thought that the intention behind the form of the grant issued by Lambeth Borough Council might “simply be to give the purchaser a right of burial” which must be exercised within 50 years of the date of the grant. It was “not intended to limit the period within which remains may be retained within a plot”.
It was not surprising, the Chancellor said, that Mr Hoang’s family did not understand it in that way. In particular, they were purchasing a grave for immediate use, so that it was natural to think that the inclusion of the reference to “the term of 50 years from the date of this grant” related to the length of time the remains were permitted to remain interred in the plot. For present purposes, what was important was how Mr Hoang’s family understood the form of grant.
It was thought that the same form of grant was still being used by Lambeth Borough Council. The Chancellor considered there to be an ambiguity, and instructed his Registrar to raise the matter with Lambeth Council. A copy of the Chancellor’s judgment was also sent to Lambeth Council.