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Critical gravestone inscription in St Albans diocese is trespass

19 March 2021

Memorial ‘counter to Christian hope’ and also unauthorised

DAVE KELLY/GEOGRAPH/COMMONS

St Mary’s, Podington

St Mary’s, Podington

AN INSCRIPTION on a memorial expressing the deceased’s low opinion of his prescribed cancer drug was deemed not acceptable in a churchyard by the Consistory Court of the diocese of St Albans.

The memorial did not comply with the Churchyard Regulations for several reasons, and had been installed without permission, and the installation of an unauthorised memorial was a trespass that the incumbent was required to prevent. The court therefore refused a confirmatory faculty, and ordered the removal of the memorial from the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Podington, a Grade I listed church.

Daniel Richards died of cancer in 2018, and was buried in a double-depth plot where his late mother, Susan Richards, had been buried in 2014. The petitioners for the confirmatory faculty were Stephen Richards, Daniel’s father, and Caroline Richards, his widow.

In February 2019, Stephen Richards, with the assistance of an unnamed friend, had entered the churchyard and replaced the 2014 memorial to Susan Richard, without a faculty for doing so. The new memorial was made of a material not permitted by the Regulations, and was inscribed in lettering that was not permitted by the Regulations.

The front of the memorial contained the dates of birth and death of Susan and Daniel Richards. But the most contentious issue was the inscription on the back which read: “Doctors chemo was the death of me / Docetaxel made from the yew tree / Leave it to the churchyard I pray / There are better cancer medicines today — Daniel Richards”.

This was followed by a verse from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (unattributed) which was modified in its layout and phrasing: “Farewell, Farewell! . . . Both man and bird and beast”.

The Team Vicar in the Chellington Team Ministry, the Revd Peter Turnbull, and the DAC felt that all the words by Daniel Richards should be removed. Mr Turnbull was told by three people that “they were not sure about the inscription on the back.”

The petitioners pointed out that no letters of objection had been received, and that they had discussed Daniel’s words “with doctors and other medical people who have all been quite happy with them”. The petitioners rejected any suggestion that the inscription might be seen as upsetting or offensive, and asked for the basis on which it was said to have that effect.

The Chancellor, the Worshipful Lyndsey de Mestre QC, said that, instead of demanding a justification by the Team Vicar or others for potential or actual offence, it was for the petitioners to show that the inscription met the requirements of the Regulations, or, if it did not, that it was otherwise justifiable and, crucially, that it was conveying a message that proclaimed (or at least was not inconsistent with) fundamental Christian beliefs.

In the Chancellor’s judgment, on the contrary, the poem conveyed “a tone of criticism, disappointment and despair” which was “wholly inconsistent with the Church’s message of hope and faith”. It was “fundamentally at odds with what is acceptable in a churchyard” and also with “the Regulations’ express purpose of embellishing the churchyard to the glory of God, which is at the root of the basic principles which permissible inscriptions must conform with”.

As a strongly worded and despondent expression of a layman’s personal opinion of a prescribed cancer treatment, the poem carried a real risk of offence or upset, particularly for a person visiting the churchyard who was, or cared for, someone undergoing the form of chemotherapy referred to. The inscription also fell foul of the requirement that inscriptions be simple and reverent. None of the messages conveyed by the inscribed words contained a sense of the respectful worship of God.

Despite numerous requests, the petitioners had not revealed the identity of the memorial mason who installed the memorial, stating only that he did not usually work on memorial headstones. The Churchyard Regulations emphasised the safety of the installation of memorial stones in a churchyard, and, to ensure that safety, they required that only a member of the National Association of Memorial Masons should install memorials.

The Chancellor said that she had “real concerns about the safety” of the installation of the memorial, and those concerns would be “most thoroughly addressed by its removal”.

Since the memorial was unauthorised, it was also a trespass. Tolerance of trespasses, particularly when the trespassers had knowledge of the relevant rules, was unfair on those who had accepted the rules, acted lawfully, and moderated their hopes or expectations accordingly, the Chancellor said. Therefore, the continued presence of this memorial in the churchyard was not permitted.

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