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Court approves exhumation and return of remains for reinterment in US

01 July 2022

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Middleton cemetery, owned by Rochdale Borough Council

Middleton cemetery, owned by Rochdale Borough Council

WHEN a family living in the United States had been unaware that a close family member had died in England, and been buried in consecrated ground in an English cemetery, those were exceptional circumstances that rebutted the Christian presumption against exhumation, the Consistory Court of Manchester diocese ruled, granting a faculty for the exhumation and return of interred remains for reinterment in the US.

The deceased, Michael Niles, and his two younger brothers were born in the UK, but, when the youngest was aged eight, the family moved to the US. About ten years later, the deceased was, for reasons not known to the court, deported to the UK. By the time he was deported, he had a daughter, his only child.

After his deportation, the deceased lived alone in the UK, while his family resided in the US and Barbados. His daughter and his brothers kept in touch with the deceased, and were last in contact with him in December 2021.

Mr Niles died on 23 January 2022, and his remains were interred on 12 April in consecrated ground in Middleton cemetery, owned by Rochdale Borough Council. His family were unaware of his death and burial until 3 May, when his father, Emerson, received a call through a social-media platform, informing him that his son had died. The next day he contacted the Greater Manchester Police Coroner’s office, who confirmed that his son had died and had been buried in Middleton cemetery. The family also discovered that all the deceased’s belongings had been disposed of.

On 31 May, the daughter of the deceased, Twana Niles, who resides in Boston, Massachusetts, petitioned the Consistory Court of Manchester for a faculty for her father’s remains to be exhumed, cremated, and sent back to the US. Her petition was supported by the deceased’s father, brothers, and their children.

The Christian theology of burial contains a presumption against exhumation. That derives from the belief that the disposal of the dead is symbolic of entrusting that person to God, so that it has an aura of permanence. In exceptional cases, however, the Chancellor has a discretion to order an exhumation.

The Chancellor of Manchester diocese, the Worshipful Geoffrey Tattersall QC, said that there were exceptional circumstances under which the general presumption of the permanence of Christian burial should not apply in this case. Had Ms Niles and her family known of the deceased’s death, they would have arranged for him to be cremated and his cremated remains to be sent to America. They believed that that would have been his wish.

That the family did not know of his death was “very unfortunate”, the Chancellor said, but it “should not lead to a conclusion in which the deceased’s mortal remains should continue to be in Middleton cemetery, a place where in practical terms no one can visit or pay their respects”.

The remains had been interred in a casket made of wood in a grave where there were no other interments, and, given that burial had been only just over two months ago, the exhumation could be carried out without difficulty.

The Chancellor expressed the hope that the reinterment would take place in consecrated ground, but did not make that a condition of the grant of the faculty.

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