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Permission granted to rebury body of RC man who took his own life in 1988

10 March 2023

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THE Consistory Court of Ely diocese has granted permission for the exhumation and reburial of a body which was buried in 1988 in a Church of England churchyard — although the family of the deceased was Roman Catholic — when the RC Church would not perform the burial.

The deceased took his own life in October 1988, when he was aged 20. The petitioner for the exhumation was his sister, who was 18 at the time, and said that she had had a “unique bond” with the deceased. The way in which he took his life had been in itself traumatic, and something neither the petitioner nor her mother had ever got over.

The Chancellor, Judge Leonard KC, said that the family’s privacy should be respected, and therefore he had not included the petitioner’s name nor any unnecessary details which might identify the personalities involved.

The petitioner had never been able to visit her brother’s grave because, she said, she could not cope with it emotionally or psychologically. Matters had been brought to a head because the petitioner’s mother had died, and was awaiting burial. The petitioner knew that the mother wanted to be buried with her son, and wanted the petitioner to be buried with her as well.

The petitioner accepted that the simple solution would be to bury her mother with her son, at the Church of England churchyard. But the petitioner said that she would then be unable to visit either her mother’s or her brother’s grave, and she could not conceive of her own burial being there.

The petitioner had found a family burial plot in unconsecrated ground in a south-east London cemetery which described itself as “serving the members of all faiths and communities”. The Chancellor said that, “in these more enlightened times”, the mother’s parish priest had agreed that he would bury the mother, and, if the faculty was granted, the deceased, using full Roman Catholic rites.

The vicar of the church in whose churchyard the deceased was buried supported the petition for exhumation, and was in no doubt that “pastoral concerns are considerable enough to warrant the move,” since the deceased had no real roots in the area nor any connection to the church.

The law was that there was a presumption that Christian burial was permanent, and that the remains should not be portable. It was the law that a faculty for exhumation would be only exceptionally granted. The permanence of burial was a very important principle of Christian faith, the Chancellor said, but the fact that exhumations had been granted even where burials had taken place decades earlier identified that that principle could be overridden where it was just to do so.

It was useful, the Chancellor said, to test those principles against what right thinking members of the public would think of a church who, by refusing to grant a faculty, would prevent a very distressed petitioner from ever visiting the grave of her brother, and, were she forced to inter her mother’s body with those of her brother in the Anglican churchyard, of ever visiting her mother’s grave either.

Burial on consecrated ground was not only to place a loved one back into the care of the Church until judgement day, but also to allow the living to visit the grave of a departed relative or friend, and seek solace in doing so. Where the petitioner, who was the only surviving member of the family, was unable to visit her brother’s grave, then the purpose of his burial in the churchyard was thwarted.

The guidance provided by the law conformed with what right thinking members of the Church would regard as acceptable. The Chancellor was satisfied that there were special circumstances which constituted a good and proper reason for making an exception to the norm that Christian burial was final.

The faculty for exhumation was therefore granted for removal of the deceased’s body from the churchyard, subject to certain conditions, which included the condition that a nominated RC priest was present at the cemetery chosen by the petitioner, to receive the body and bury the deceased using the full Roman Catholic rites.

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