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Churchyard rules stop a mother personalising her children’s grave

by
19 February 2021

Churchyard regulations are heartless in the eyes of grieving parents, Ted Harrison hears

Lyndsey Dent

Ellie Mae and Caleb’s grave before the removal of the toys

Ellie Mae and Caleb’s grave before the removal of the toys

A MOTHER has described Church of England regulations as “heartless and unsympathetic” after being told by her vicar to remove flowers, toys, and mementoes from the grave where her two children are buried. Her online petition to change the “heartbreaking regulations for the resting places of babies and children” has gathered, at the time of writing, almost 2500 signatures.

Lyndsey Dent’s children, Caleb and Ellie Mae Brownnutt, died from Batten’s disease, a rare genetic disease that causes loss of all abilities, from sight, to walking, speaking, and eating. Caleb was nine when he died in November 2019, and his sister, who died four years earlier, was only six.

They share a grave in the churchyard at St Chad’s, Far Headingley, Leeds, which their mother visits regularly and tends. Until recently, she would place flowers and small brightly coloured toys there, alongside a model of a favourite character, Winnie the Pooh.

Last December, Mrs Dent received a letter from the Team Vicar, the Revd Hannah Lievesley, saying that adherence to churchyard regulations had been allowed to slip in recent years, and the number of non-compliant graves had increased. This was making maintenance more time-consuming, and ornaments and plantings on graves were detracting from the natural beauty and tranquillity of the churchyard.

The letter gave a list of prohibited items, which included windmills, toys, and artificial flowers, and Mrs Dent was asked to remove anything that did not comply. It also said that unauthorised plants on the grave should be dug up, or they would be removed by the maintenance volunteers.

 

MRS DENT subsequently learned from the Vicar that the headstone, which she wished to reinstate a year after Caleb’s burial with his name added, was also unauthorised. It had a proscribed polished finish, the base was not compliant with current regulations, and the lettering was gold and not black.

Furthermore, the inscriptions “I love you to the moon and back” and “To infinity and back” might need special approval. Mrs Dent was advised that to have the headstone approved she would have to initiate a private petition for a faculty, and pay a fee of £302 to a firm of Yorkshire solicitors.

“The timing of this letter was dreadful,” Mrs Dent recalls. “It was just before Christmas, shortly after the first anniversary of Caleb’s death and a few days before Ellie Mae’s birthday.

“As a former town planner, I understand the need for regulations, and have done what was asked of me, but there is a real need for the regulations to change. They are, in my opinion, harsh and heartless to the needs of grieving parents, family and friends, including children who have lost their siblings, cousins and friends.

“The ability to leave ornaments and see the pretty items others have brought has been a source of great comfort to me personally in my overwhelming grief. As a Christian believer, I find the rules hugely burdensome and distressing. I do not feel the compassion of our Lord Jesus in them.”


Lyndsey DentEllie Mae BrownnuttBESIDES starting a petition, Mrs Dent has written to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, and started a social-media campaign. She has had dozens of messages of support, many from local families.

One read, “These beautiful cared-for graves are being forced to become uniform and sterile. I remember with fondness walking the kids to church . . . and looking up towards the children’s area and my six-year-old being able to say, that’s my friend’s grave. Such an uplifting sight — a testament to a families love and the hope of glory.”

On the last day of January, the deadline, the Winnie-the-Pooh, rabbit, and other toys were taken away. “Once all the ornaments are gone, there will be nothing there to mark the grave except an area of mud where the headstone used to be,” Mrs Dent told Bishop Baines in a letter, “It will be very distressing for me to visit. I would hope to be allowed some item to mark the grave in the meantime.”

Today, Ellie Mae and Caleb’s grave is marked by a simple wooden cross and two bunches of flowers.

 

MRS DENT says that she finds everyone she has contacted in the Church of England — including Archbishop Welby and Bishop Baines — to be sympathetic, but standing by the legalities. Bishop Baines assured her of his prayers, but explained that gravestones were subject to faculty jurisdiction, and that churchyards had restrictions.

In a statement, a diocesan spokesman said, “This is both a pastoral and a legal matter, and the bishop has to ensure the needs of all parties and the law are upheld. In this matter the local PCC made a general request for people to respect both the Churchyard Regulations, and the feelings of others with loved ones within the churchyard walls.”

The Vicar who wrote the initial letter had not had any specific complaints about Caleb and Ellie Mae’s grave. “Since we started the action, we have been thanked by others with loved ones in the churchyard. There are people who choose for loved ones to be buried in a beautiful natural space by a listed building, and they don’t want to be distracted by toys, windmills, and balloons on other people’s graves. They’ve signed up to the regulations and expect other people to keep to them, too.”

“The regulations exist precisely to avoid subjective decisions, and thus are for the benefit of all,” the diocesan spokesman said.

One letter of support that Mrs Dent received said: “This is not the time to consider what is aesthetically pleasing to strangers, nor to make the spaces generic and without warmth. . . The resting place of a lost child is a very special and personal place . . . specific to the child that is buried there.”

The rigidity of church regulations came as a shock, Mrs Dent said, as she attempted to find what lay behind them, and how they might be relaxed “to be far more flexible and sympathetic”.

“The process of fighting for my right to leave a stone teddy at my child’s resting place is unbelievably difficult,” Mrs Dent says. “When I wrote to the Archbishop, I was told to direct my questions to the local diocese. When I asked to speak to the Chancellor, I am told that the ban on ornaments is common throughout the Church of England.

“I am still not clear on who makes these decisions, which is terribly frustrating.”

 

HER reaction on first reading the regulations was, she recalls, one of shock.

“I kept reading, sure that somewhere there would be a separate section for the graves of babies and children with relaxed guidance so that I could maintain the plot in a unique way to show her personality and how loved she was, somewhere her little friends could come and bring tokens and smile at how she would have loved it. But sadly not.”

On 14 January, the Leeds Diocesan Registrar, Peter Foskett, wrote to Mrs Dent concerning “unauthorised objects and mementoes” on the grave. The prohibition, he explained, was common throughout the Church of England and “reflects the delicate balance that must be struck” between the grieving family, other users of the churchyard, and those who had to maintain it.

Mr Foskett said that, once a faculty petition had been received by the Consistory Court of the diocese of Leeds, the presiding judge, the Chancellor, would be able to adjudicate and suggest a way forward. “Maybe a compromise or relaxation can be found” .

 

CHANCELLOR Mark Hill QC gave his ruling on the headstone on 1 February.

Out of pastoral concern and compassion, he “would be minded to allow a faculty to issue”. He noted with surprise, however, that the petition before the Court did not request permission for mementoes to be left at the grave, and suggested that, in view of the “distress occasioned to Mrs Dent”, he would wish to explore whether the faculty could be expanded to “include permission to place a limited number of particular mementoes at the grave for a certain period, or to include an inscription of Winnie-the-Pooh on the headstone itself if room permits”.

Lyndsey DentCaleb Brownnutt

Mrs Dent describes the Chancellor’s response as compassionate and understanding. “Ellie Mae in particular would have loved to see Pooh on the headstone, and Caleb, too.” But she is still pressing ahead with her wider campaign for the Church of England to ask itself whether current churchyard regulations are “unsympathetic”, and far too prescriptive in setting aesthetic standards and dictating how families express their grief at a grave.
 

Find the petition here

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