Court grants atheist family’s request to exhume remains from churchyard

14 June 2019

The family had been in ‘too much shock’ at the time to make decisions about the funeral

Colin Smith/Creative Commons

St Nicholas’s, Charlwood

St Nicholas’s, Charlwood

THE Consistory Court of the diocese of Southwark granted a family’s request for the exhumation of remains from a grave in the churchyard of St Nicholas’s, Charlwood, because the family were conscientious atheists and had been in too much shock at the time to make decisions about the funeral.

The petitioner for the exhumation, cremation, and reburial of ashes was Rebecca Jane Crow, a daughter of the deceased, Gwendolen Patricia Crow, whose body was buried in January 2000. Her father and her three sisters supported the petition.

The deceased, aged 58, was driving her car when she skidded on black ice and had a minor accident. She phoned her husband and the AA. While waiting for assistance she was hit by another vehicle, and died of her injuries. Her family were too traumatised to arrange the funeral, and left it to a family friend, who was a Christian. He arranged for her burial in the churchyard. In June 2000, the family erected a memorial.

The petitioner had assumed that burial in the churchyard was what their father wanted, although she was surprised, since her parents were convinced atheists and their children had all been deliberately brought up in that stance. She was also surprised by the choice of burial rather than cremation, as her mother had said that she wanted the latter. The family had now discussed the matter, and felt that the decision was wrong.

It was for the petitioner to satisfy the Consistory Court that there were special circumstances which would justify making an exception to the norm that Christian burial in consecrated ground was final.

The Deputy Chancellor, Morag Ellis QC, said that the facts of this case were “tragic and remarkable”. It was not a “mistake” case of the sort which sometimes came before the court, such as burial in consecrated ground as opposed to unconsecrated ground owing to an administrative error, but there was here “a fundamental mistake of intention”.

Because the family were affected by shock, it was clear that the family friend took charge in a way that he thought best, and the family did not criticise him.

“For a family of conscientious atheists, Christian burial was not the right choice,” the Deputy Chancellor said. It was not a case of “mere change of mind”, because the family’s minds were never actually engaged in the decision. The facts of the case were extraordinary, she said, and her decision was not intended to create any kind of precedent.

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