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Court has last word on grave spaces

04 December 2020

But the Chancellor ends up agreeing with the PCC’s policy

Creative Commons/Dave Kelly

St Mary’s, Doddington

St Mary’s, Doddington

A PETITIONER, whether a parishioner or non-parishioner, had an absolute right to apply for the reservation of a grave space in a churchyard, and the PCC could not stop the process of reserving a grave space by adopting a blanket policy that no more grave spaces should be reserved. The reservation of grave spaces was entirely in the discretion of the Chancellor of the diocese.

The Chancellor of the diocese of Ely emphasised those principles — but then refused the petition of Alison Allen to reserve a grave space in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Doddington, in agreement with the PCC’s policy.

In dispute was the last space but one in the third row of graves, adjacent to that of Mrs Allen’s father, Robert Jones, who did not live in the parish, but was buried there in August 2019.

Mrs Allen was not resident in the parish of St Mary’s, but lived in part of the same benefice of six churches. She was not on the electoral roll of St Mary’s, did not subscribe to parish funds, and attended church only on “family occasions”.

The Rural Dean, the Revd Andrew Smith, identified 40 spaces as being available for burial which would meet the needs of the parish for a further ten years. From 2005, the PCC had adopted a policy to oppose all applications to reserve spaces made by parishioners and non-parishioners alike. The spaces were to be filled as and when someone died. There were about 15 reserved spaces from before that time.

One of the churchwardens disputed whether there were as many spaces left in the churchyard as the Rural Dean suggested. She was concerned that there was insufficient room between the current row of graves and the church wall to fit in an additional row that the Rural Dean had taken into account when calculating that there were 40 spaces left.

There was a cemetery maintained by the village parish council (as opposed to the PCC), and a further new, as yet unused, cemetery near to Doddington Hospital, which was at present unconsecrated ground.

The PCC, adhering to its policy, did not support Mrs Allen’s application. More than 20 letters of objection were received by the Registry, all making similar points: they objected because, if the application was granted, it was unfair to others who had not sought reservations because of the PCC’s policy.

The Chancellor, Judge Leonard QC, sitting in the Consistory Court of the diocese of Ely, said that, having considered all the competing arguments, he had come down firmly in favour of refusing the application. While he had great sympathy for Mrs Allen’s natural desire to be buried with her forebears, there were no grounds on which to allow a grave-space reservation that went against the PCC’s policy. To grant the application would be “to the detriment of other parishioners who have accepted the PCC’s policy as being both sensible and fair to all”, the Chancellor said.

The availability of spaces in land elsewhere in the village, assuming that it, or some of it, would be consecrated in the near future, was not a reason for allowing a petition to reserve a space in consecrated ground surrounding the church. As the letters of objection showed, there were many villagers who had relations buried in the churchyard, and would like to be buried close to them. In those circumstances, the Chancellor said, it was “difficult to argue that [Mrs Allen] was a special case”.

It was open to her to apply for her ashes to be buried in the grave of her father, or for a memorial stone to be erected in her memory while her remains were buried elsewhere.

The Chancellor also pointed out that, in the diocese of Ely, the reservation of a grave space provided a right of burial in an identified grave space for a period of 25 years. Mrs Allen was 49 years old, and it was “therefore quite likely, and to be hoped, that a reservation if granted now would lapse before [she] died”.

The Chancellor invited the PCC to investigate or proceed with the consecration of all or part of the ground within the new cemetery by Doddington Hospital, and also to identify, if necessary with the assistance of an undertaker, the number of spaces that remained to be filled in the churchyard, and whether any of the ground could be considered for re-use for burial.

So long as the churchyard had not been closed by Order in Council, it was lawful to re-use a churchyard or any part of it that had previously been used, even if memorials were still standing, which could be removed by an application to the Consistory Court for a faculty.

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