A GRAVEDIGGER’s ingenious idea for moving a coffin from one grave plot to another without lifting the coffin above ground made it unnecessary for the Consistory Court to grant a faculty authorising exhumation.
The petitioner, Kevin Ward, sought a faculty for the exhumation and re-interment of the remains of his father, John Ward, who had been buried in July 2020 in plot C17 in the churchyard of St Andrew’s, Horbling, in Lincoln diocese. There had been an understanding with the then incumbent, the Revd Neil Knox, that the petitioner’s mother would, in due course, be buried next to his father in plot C18, and that the petitioner himself would be interred in the space adjacent to the one identified for his mother.
No faculty was sought for the reservation of a plot, but it was clear from correspondence between Fr Knox and the petitioner that they both assumed that plot C18 had been reserved for the petitioner’s mother.
In March 2021, Fr Knox moved to another parish, leaving a vacancy at St Andrew’s. On 3 October 2021, the petitioner visited his father’s grave, and found that, in September 2021, there had been a burial in plot C18.
The petitioner applied to the Consistory Court at Lincoln for a faculty for the exhumation of his father’s remains and their removal to the row behind his grave, Row D, so that, when the time came, his widow could be buried next to him, and the petitioner could go next to her.
Exhumation is the lifting of human remains from the ground, and is permitted only in limited circumstances. The Christian theology of burial is that it is final, after the committal of the deceased.
Alan Barnacle, an experienced gravedigger used by the undertakers, was confident, however, that the grave conditions would be such that it would be possible to dig a trench from plot C17, where the remains of John Ward are currently buried, so that the coffin could be pulled into the next row, Row D, and fill that grave space.
The Chancellor, Judge Mark Bishop, was satisfied “that such a procedure would not constitute exhumation of the body because at all times the remains would not be lifted from the ground but remain at the depth at which they were buried”. Because it was not an exhumation, the strict legal rules that had to be followed did not apply. The process suggested by the gravedigger involved interfering with human remains after they were buried, which would not be possible unless there was lawful permission.
The Chancellor said that he was satisfied that “an error had been made which should in fairness to the petitioner and his family be corrected.” There was no mistake in the interment of the petitioner’s father, in plot C17, but there had been subsequent mistakes by the church in failing to have an up-to-date churchyard plan available at all times, which had led to an interment in plot C18, which had reasonably been understood by the petitioner and his family to have been reserved for Mrs Ward.
A faculty was granted for the digging of a trench from plot C17 up to the next row, Row D, and for Mr Ward’s coffin to be pulled along that trench and into a new grave-space. It was a condition that the work must be carried out behind screens, and at such a time as not to cause offence or distress to others visiting the churchyard.
It was also required that an up-to-date and accurate churchyard plan must be prepared under the supervision of the rural dean, and a copy placed in the vestry for reference by visiting clergy, undertakers, and gravediggers.
The churchwardens of St Andrew’s were made parties to the proceedings by the Chancellor, because he was considering whether he should make the PCC pay, or make a contribution towards the undertaker’s costs in moving the coffin. The undertakers were given 28 days to submit their bill of costs, and the PCC were given 28 days after that to make any representations as to why they should not be required to pay, or to contribute toward, those costs.
Churchwardens played a vital part in the life of parish churches, particularly during an interregnum, the Chancellor said, and, in this case, “the responsibility held by the churchwardens in the management of the churchyard had not been fully understood.” It was the failure to have an accurate churchyard plan easily available which had “led to this distressing and wholly avoidable situation”, he said.