THE Consistory Court of the diocese of Oxford granted a faculty permitting the exhumation, from a double grave in the churchyard of All Saints’, Sutton Courtenay, of the remains of Robert Hanks, who died on 6 April 1879, aged 63, and of his wife Mary Hanks, who died on 13 March 1910, aged 80. The petitioner for the faculty was their great-great-grandson, William Hanks, a longstanding resident of the village of Sutton Courtenay. The grave is situated a short distance from the western wall of an extension in an area of the churchyard that has been little used for burials for much of the past century.
All Saints’ is Grade I listed, and is said to exhibit work from every period from the 12th to the 15th centuries. It is accredited as a Quality Assured Visitor Attraction. The churchyard contains a chest tomb for the former Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, and the grave and gravestone of the writer Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. The visitors’ book of the church provided evidence of people travelling from all over the world to visit Orwell’s grave. The writer Bill Bryson commented in his book Notes from a Small Island (1995): “How remarkable it is that in a single village churchyard you find the graves of two men of global stature.”
Permission had been granted for extensions to the church, and the petitioner was concerned that, at the conclusion of the works, his great-great-grandparents’ grave would be situated on an “island” within the churchyard, with paths on three sides and the wall of the new extension on the fourth. Moreover, he feared that, since the grave would lie on the route of a shortcut between the external entrance to the new extension and the path to the north, it would become a “desire line”.
The Chancellor of Oxford, the Worshipful David Hodge QC, said that, in view of the popularity of the church, the petitioner’s fears could not be discounted. Against that background, the petitioner wished the grave to be moved to another available double grave space within the churchyard. He had contacted all of his relatives with whom he was in touch, including some in the United States and Australia, and they all agreed with his petition. He recognised that there might be other descendants of his great-great-grandparents with whom he was not in touch. The Chancellor said that that was “only to be expected, given that he is four generations removed from his great-great-grandparents”.
Permanence is the norm for Christian burial, and permission for exhumation is granted only exceptionally. The petitioner emphasised that his petition came about because of changes that were being made within the churchyard by the church itself, without which there would be no need for the grave to be moved. Moreover, in substance, what was being proposed was the relocation of the grave within the same area of consecrated ground in which it was currently located. His particular concern was the likelihood that people would walk across the grave to get to and from the extension. He undertook that the disinterment and subsequent reinterment of the remains would be conducted with due reverence and decency.
The PCC and the Rector of All Saints’ supported the petition, and that was said to reflect its inherent reasonableness. Only a few of the other graves affected by the building works were under 100 years old, the most recent burial having been in 1937, and none of those graves was actively tended by relatives of the relevant deceased. The Rector did not think that the grant of this faculty would be likely to provoke any similar petitions. The building works had been widely talked about across the community for many years, and no other family had expressed concern about any of the affected graves.
The Chancellor ruled that “on the unusual facts”, the petitioner had satisfied the court that there were special circumstances which constituted good and proper reason for making an exception to the norm that Christian burial in consecrated ground was final.