THE Chancellor of the diocese of Salisbury was called on to decide, on a balance of probabilities, the identity of the deceased person whose cremated remains had been surreptitiously deposited in a grave in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels, Figheldean, and what should be done with them.
On 15 October 2020, Brian Reed visited the grave of his parents, Wally and Gwen Reed, and found that a neat square of turf had been lifted and then replaced. The groundsman had noticed the disturbance on 13 October, during his daily visit to the churchyard. The incumbent, the Revd Philip Bromiley, investigated and discovered what appeared to be cremated remains that had been poured directly into the ground. He brought a petition to the Consistory Court seeking a faculty for the remains to be exhumed and immediately reinterred in another plot in the churchyard.
Poor weather was expected, however, and it was feared that the remains would dissipate. The Chancellor, therefore, granted an interim faculty on 1 November for the seemly exhumation of the remains, pending determination of the petition. The exhumation took place the next day by the lifting of the remains within the surrounding earth to ensure their integrity, and they were stored safely by undertakers.
In August 2018, Wally and Gwen Reed’s son Michael had taken his own life — it was said, in the context of the breakdown of his marriage. His cremated remains had been collected by his widow from the undertaker, but there had been no public interment or scattering of his ashes.
Michael’s four siblings, including his twin sister, were convinced that the remains left in their parents’ grave were Michael’s. His widow denied any knowledge of that, and said that she had scattered Michael’s ashes in accordance with his wishes on Christmas Eve 2018, at an undisclosed location. She wrote to the Registry giving details of her understanding of the situation, but had been unwilling to take any part in the court proceedings.
There was no objection to the exhumation of the ashes from Wally and Gwen Reed’s grave, but the question remained what should happen to them once exhumed. In their current condition, they could no longer be scattered, but Michael’s siblings asked for the release of the ashes into the safe custody of Brian Reed. The intention was that they would be safely stored by him until the weather and harvest permitted them to be interred in an area of farmland overlooking Figheldean, to which Michael had been very attached and which he had farmed for 40 years.
Reinterment within the same churchyard would have been a proposal acceptable to the Consistory Court, regardless of the identity of the remains. But a prerequisite of the release of the remains to Michael’s siblings was a finding that the remains were, indeed, Michael’s. The Chancellor, the Worshipful Ruth Arlow, said that she would have to be satisfied of that — not so that she was sure, but, rather, on the balance of probabilities. A hearing took place by Zoom on 15 January. The incumbent gave evidence, and Michael’s sister gave evidence on behalf of her siblings.
The Chancellor said that it was clear that the family had struggled to come to terms with the fact that they would not know of Michael’s final resting place, and that the discovery of the remains had been enormously distressing.
On the evidence and all the surrounding circumstances, the Chancellor was satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the remains interred in Wally and Gwen Reed’s grave were the mortal remains of their son Michael. The Chancellor said that she did not know how the remains came to be interred there, but she did not need to make findings on that.
Michael Reed’s widow did not seek the return of his ashes into her care. The Chancellor said that “Michael was clearly a man much loved,” and that the grant of a faculty releasing his remains into the safe custody of his brother Brian would “enable a respectful and peaceful farewell to be made, committing him into the safety of God’s hands”.