THE consistory court of Leeds diocese granted an unusual petition for the reservation of a grave space in the churchyard of St Thomas à Becket and St Thomas the Apostle, Heptonstall, where the grave of the poet Sylvia Plath is located. The petitioner was not a parishioner, nor had any connection with the area.
Those who are resident in the parish and those who die in the parish have a right to be buried in the churchyard. In addition, parish clergy may consent to the burial, in the churchyard of their benefice, of anyone they choose. But only the chancellor of a diocese may, by granting a faculty, authorise the reservation of a grave space for a living parishioner or non-parishioner.
The Diocesan Chancellor of Leeds, the Worshipful Mark Hill QC, directed that the identity of the petitioner should not be disclosed by the press or social media, owing to her rights to a private and family life.
She is 44 years old, and lives in Oxfordshire. She stated that she was part of an Anglican parish, and was “a committed and confirmed Christian” who wished to be buried in consecrated ground. She said that she had been to Heptonstall with her mother to visit Plath’s grave. She gave as her reason for wishing this particular churchyard to be her final resting place as being an enduring affection for literature, and the proximity of Plath’s grave.
The PCC had no objection to her petition for the reservation of a grave space. The Interim Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Karen Marshall, said that the parish had no written policy on burials or grave reservations, but it had been “custom and practice to permit anyone who asks to be buried there to have a grave, on the basis that there is plenty of room and the church wishes to offer that hospitality to those who ask for it”.
She said that there was a great deal of interest in the history of the village and its connection with Plath, but most of those buried in the churchyard were local, and she knew of nobody who had given their reason for wishing to be buried in the churchyard as “on account of literary associations”.
The Chancellor said that an unusual feature of this case was the “superabundance” of burial space in this particular churchyard. The norm elsewhere seemed to be that burial grounds had been closed by Order in Council, or were near to full capacity.
It was not for the Consistory Court to examine the objective reasonableness of the petitioner’s justification for wishing to reserve a grave space, the Chancellor said, especially when there was so much available space. Were there to be fewer grave spaces remaining, the court would have been entitled to examine critically the petitioner’s reasoning.
The Chancellor also considered the “floodgates” argument: namely, whether the faculty should be refused because it might lead to a vast number of similar petitions in the future from people wanting to be buried in close proximity to their literary heroes and heroines. The Chancellor concluded that this should not be a reason for a denial of justice in this case, and its special facts were unlikely to create a precedent.
The faculty was granted for the reservation of the grave space for 25 years, and renewable for further periods of ten years each. The grave space was to be clearly marked on the churchyard plan, and identified on the ground by an appropriate marker by the petitioner at her own expense. She was advised to communicate the fact of the reservation to her next of kin and to the executor of her will.
She had also provided detailed instructions for her desired headstone, which was to include the Latin inscription “Resurgam”, meaning “I shall rise again”. Her reason for choosing that, she said, was because that was the inscription that Jane Eyre had inscribed on a tablet that she added to the grave of her friend Helen Burns in Charlotte Brontë’s novel. The Chancellor said that the use of foreign languages on headstones, including Latin, was permitted in Leeds diocese.