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Court allows ‘Dad’ and ‘Grandad’ on gravestones

03 January 2020

Rector had refused to permit the words on a memorial

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THERE is nothing in the terms “Dad” and “Grandad” that lacks appropriate dignity or reverence, the Consistory Court of the diocese of Norwich has ruled. The court has granted a faculty for an inscription on a memorial in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Syderstone, overruling the incumbent’s refusal to permit those words.

Although there is a right of burial for parishioners and certain others in a churchyard, there is no right to erect a memorial. The jurisdiction to permit memorials lies with the consistory courts. Since there are more than 650 churches in Norwich diocese, the authority to permit certain types of memorials have, for reasons of practicality, been delegated to the incumbent of each parish through the Diocesan Churchyard Regulations 2016. That delegation allows, but does not require, the incumbent to permit memorials of a relatively “standard” design.

Memorials that fall outside the description of “standard” may still be permitted by the Consistory Court, and memorials for which an incumbent has refused permission may also be permitted by the Consistory Court.

John Walden died in January 2018, and is buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Syderstone. His family wished to erect a memorial that included the words “A dear husband, Dad and Grandad”. The Rector, the Revd Clive Wylie, told them that the words “Dad” and “Grandad” were not allowed, but could be replaced by the words “Father” and “Grandfather”. The family said that the use of those more formal terms felt wrong to them.

Mr Wylie’s decision was not based solely upon the Diocesan Regulations but upon a policy that had been adopted in November 2018 by all the PCCs in the benefice. Under that policy, the list of relationships on a memorial were limited to a maximum of four, and the only relationships permitted were: father, mother, son, daughter, partner, friend, grandfather, grandmother, brother, sister, great-grandfather, great-grandmother, aunt, and uncle.

Diminutives of Christian names were permitted in brackets, for example, Thomas (Tom) Smith, but nicknames were not permitted. Reference was made to other applications which had been received using phrases such as “Popsicle” in place of “Father”, which had caused concern.

The Diocesan Chancellor, the Worshipful Ruth Arlow, said that, in deciding whether to uphold that policy, she had to ask herself whether it was reasonable in its substance: that is, whether there was good reason for it.

If the reason was that it was necessary to accord with the diocesan regulations that inscriptions must be “simple, dignified and reverent” , the Chancellor said, she did not think the use of the words “Dad” and Grandad” fell outside that description. If a wider justification existed upon which it might be possible to say that the policy had good reason, it had not been provided.

The use of nicknames such as “Popsicle” might be questioned as lacking appropriate dignity or reverence, and as not speaking meaningfully to future generations. But the same could not be said of the words “Dad” and “Grandad”, which were commonly used by most families in this country.

The Chancellor was told that no inscriptions using less formal language to describe family relationships had been permitted since Mr Wylie’s arrival in the parish, save for one occasion, in 2018, where “dad, granddad and great-grandad” had been permitted to match an existing inscription on the same memorial.

The Walden family, however, had produced photographs of 15 further inscriptions on memorials in this churchyard that had used “Dad” and “Grandad”, and 12 that had used female equivalents such as “Mum” or “Nan”.

The family said that, had they known about the policy at the time of the interment, they would have considered burying Mr Walden’s remains elsewhere. Despite public notices and some press attention, local feeling had not produced any objection to the Walden’s proposals apart from that of the incumbent and churchwardens based on the policy adopted.

The Chancellor said that, given the lack of fundamental objection, and the relatively widespread use of the sort of terms proposed on the inscription, it would not be fair to refuse the Walden family’s petition for a faculty. There was, she said, “nothing discernibly different in relation to this churchyard which would mean that words commonly permitted in other churchyards in the diocese should not be used here”.

To the extent that the PCC’s policy choices were made out of a misunderstanding of the terms of the diocesan regulations, the Chancellor said that she would encourage all PCCs to contact the Registry, where clarification could be swiftly obtained.

“If a local policy was to be adopted, then it must be clearly formulated, appropriately published, and objectively justified,” the Chancellor said.

This case had had “significant pastoral implications within the parish”, and the Chancellor hoped that her decision would “provide the clarity needed to avoid future recurrences” of the difficulties that arose in this case.

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