GREGG McGUIRE was just 13 years old when he was knocked off his bicycle and killed by a speeding motorist. He is buried in the churchyard of St George’s, Fatfield, near Sunderland.
Gregg’s mother wanted to erect a polished black granite headstone, which would feature — alongside the usual name and dates — a long poem and an engraved image of Gregg, with a football at his feet, standing at the foot of a stairway to heaven, from which heart-shaped beams of light emanated.
The Church of England, however, said that this was not possible. Or, to be more precise, the Chancellor of the diocese of Durham ruled that her proposed headstone was outside the churchyard regulations, and that she must shrink the proposed image and significantly cut the 90-word count of the poem, before it could be approved.
Gregg’s case is the latest in a long line of consistory-court rulings that attempt to mediate between different expectations.
In 2016, another priest in Durham diocese was caught between two mourners: one mother, who erected an unauthorised headstone for her son, including a photograph and a red-and-white Sunderland football scarf around the edge, and another who complained that his visit to his mother’s grave near by had been ruined by this “unsightly” memorial (News, 6 May 2016). The Chancellor was called to adjudicate once more.
In 2021, a mother launched a petition against the “heartbreaking regulations” which meant she was told by her vicar to remove the toys, flowers, models, and lights that she had left at the grave of her two children who had died, aged nine and six. (News, 19 February 2021).
The Consistory Court of Leicester had to rule in 2020 that, although regulations generally forbade animal sculptures, an exception could be made for a sheep, given its strong Christian associations (News, 21 February 2020).
In Lichfield, the court overruled both a vicar and the PCC when allowing an irregular-shaped headstone which included the word “Dad” (News, 30 September 2022). The grieving parents of three-year-old Max Gainard applied for permission to include a colourful image of Thomas the Tank Engine on his headstone in a Bristol graveyard, noting that other gravestones near by had even more “vulgar” imagery on them (News, 22 April 2016). The Chancellor disagreed, refusing their faculty application. In short, churchyards have become deeply contested spaces.
CONTRARY to popular understanding, there is no automatic right to have a headstone or memorial. While anyone living in a parish has a right to be buried in its churchyard (presuming it still has space), a headstone or other marking can be erected only with permission.
Chancellors (the ecclesiastical judge serving each diocese) delegate to parish clergy the power to grant permission when a proposed headstone falls within the diocese’s regulations. If it does not, the bereaved can apply for permission directly to the chancellor’s consistory court.
While diocesan regulations are broadly similar, over time, each diocese has evolved its own particular rules. Headstones can be different heights and widths; slate might be barred or welcomed; and informal language is prohibited in some places but uncontested in others.
And, over time, the regulations have moved beyond covering permanent memorials. Many dioceses now specify what kinds of flowers can be laid at a grave, and in what sort of vase; whether any kind of light can be installed; and for how many days a stuffed toy will be permitted before the PCC must dispose of it.
And it is these rules, and the back-stories behind memorials that butt against them, which is making Church of England churchyards such contested spaces.
While the majority of mourning families opt for a simple headstone that falls comfortably within the rules, a minority wish to commemorate their loved one in ways that dioceses are uncomfortable about.
The Chancellor of the diocese of Derby, the Worshipful the Revd Timothy Clarke, said that families were “discovering that there are more options these days”, such as laser-etching of pictures, which has become a particularly contentious new technology. Others pointed to another stubbornly persistent myth, which held that once a loved one was buried in a parish plot, the relatives literally owned the grave site above their coffin, and could, therefore, do whatever they wished with it.
While, for most families, grave disputes never arise, “for those people for whom this is an issue, it’s an enormous issue,” Judge Clarke said.
The Vicar-General of York, the Rt Worshipful Peter Collier KC, said that, regardless of the content of the regulations, some people would always want to “push the box further than they can at the moment”. Others, however, feel strongly that the fault lies with an inflexible consistory-court system, which seeks to impose a single, outmoded style of grief and memorialisation, causing pastoral complications for clergy caught in the middle.
WHY does the C of E care what gravestones look like? And not just care, but care enough to specify the precise colour of the lettering of inscriptions, or the specific receptacle for flowers (always real but possibly silk, never plastic)?
One argument is that the Church has to consider everyone who will use the churchyard for decades to come. Judge Collier said that chancellors must take into account the views and feelings of other mourners in the churchyard.
“It’s very difficult, because, obviously, people in their grief want to write all sorts of things. They’re not thinking, ‘What’s this going to look like in 50 years?’ But a memorial epitaph is there to inform the public as well as comfort the family.”
There is also the heritage argument: a churchyard that surrounds a Grade I or II listed building must remain in keeping with the church it is attached to. Hyper-modern, polished black granite headstones, covered in photographs, solar lights, and plastic windmills would not.
Canon Georgina ByrneCanon Georgina Byrne, who teaches at the Queen’s Foundation College, Birmingham, pointed out that a churchyard was a public area that people might walk through every day on their way to services, or to pay their respects, or simply stop for a moment of reflection on a bench. “It’s about maintaining some sort of consistency, and, certainly — in the church that I was looking after — a sense of calm and peace.”
Others, though, question the motives behind restrictive regulations. One experienced chancellor, who asked not to be named, accused C of E authorities of trying to hold on to a “middle-class aesthetic of what’s appropriate and what’s not”. This meant that churches had become out of touch with the feelings and sensitivities of 21st-century everyday British families, who wanted to grieve in a more expressive and individualistic way than the world of the 1950s, when churchyard regulations were first drawn up.
“That’s when the Church appears immovable and insensitive,” he said. An institution that refused to allow the grieving parents of a six-month-old baby to engrave a picture of her favourite teddy bear on the headstone would inevitably be seen as “wholly without Christian charity”.
Other clashes are cultural, such as when Traveller families want to erect “loud, garish headstones”, as is their own tradition, and this is rejected by the more staid middle-class rural parish for being flamboyant or vulgar. “It’s very hard for the Church of England to be the guardian of good and bad taste,” the Chancellor said.
The Church’s senior church buildings officer, David Knight, said: “Different generations and different communities across England can vary in their expectations in the way they show that respect. Each parish and diocese will seek to be sensitive to these needs.”
JUDGE COLLIER speaks of the “Princess Diana factor”, noting that there was a change after the Princess’s death in terms of how people wished to express grief. “Managing that is not easy,” he admitted.
The Revd Nick Barr-Hamilton, whose parish graveyard is at the centre of the case over Gregg McGuire’s headstone, mentioned earlier, said that it was true that contemporary culture led people to want to be more individualistic, and to “do their own thing”, and this clashed against the top-down conformity desired by diocesan regulations. But it was more complex than that: many young people also appreciated a simple, calm, and well-kept churchyard.
Dr Byrne, whose research in church history specialises in death and popular culture surrounding the afterlife, suggests that there was no golden era of restrained and sombre churchyards. Victorian graveyards were chaotic spaces full of grotesque, outsized angel statues. In the Early Church, it was common for cemeteries to be used for outdoor communal meals.
The Revd Nick Barr-Hamilton
During her time as a parish priest, Dr Byrne said that her interests in maintaining her churchyard had nothing to do with personal aesthetic taste. The ban on plastic flowers or teddies was a practical one: few families considered how these would appear months after the interment as they accumulated dirt and mould. And excessive kerbstones around a grave site, or mounds of different colour gravel, made maintaining a churchyard only more difficult for the volunteers who came to cut the grass.
The truth, Judge Clarke said, was that the legal and diocesan officials who governed the system were not “ogres in ivory towers”, but ordinary Christians trying to be as pastoral as possible to grieving families. “The whole thing is a question of balance.”
“When you are grieving, you can’t see beyond the end of your nose,” Dr Byrne said. “It’s very immediate, very raw. Trying to communicate that sense of the long term to people who are dealing with grief is really hard.” She valued the inflexibility of the regulations, which meant priests could shield behind the “faceless bureaucrat” who was ruining designs for a headstone rather than absorb the family’s pain directly.
SPARING priests was behind the formation of the regulations in the first place, Judge Collier explained. The original 1953 Church Assembly commission’s report noted how “many vicars were unwilling to refuse designs because of their sympathy with the relatives of the deceased, and the desire not to cause them inconvenience or disappointment”.
Mr Barr-Hamilton said, however, that this had not been his approach. He and his church’s pastoral team had worked with Gregg’s family throughout, helping them to draft their faculty application, and writing supporting letters to the Chancellor. And, despite the partial refusal by the diocesan authorities, he said that it had not hugely interfered with his pastoral role in helping the family through their bereavement.
“To some degree, [the process] is reasonable in the sense that they are forewarned,” he explained. With every burial, he takes care ensure that families are aware that any unusual memorial will require a time-consuming and expensive faculty application, without any guarantee of success.
The Chancellor said that, in his career, very few churchyard cases ever reached a consistory court, because most people would simply grumble and then amend their design to fit within the regulations by themselves. “It’s only the stubborn who go to the chancellor,” he said, “or the rich.” The application fee alone is more than £300 in most dioceses.
A high-profile case in 2021 — the first churchyard case to reach the Court of Arches (the appeal court for the Province of Canterbury) in a generation — has prompted a Church-wide rethink, however.
The issue revolved around whether an Irish-language inscription could be included on a memorial in a graveyard in the diocese of Coventry (News, 12 June 2020). The Diocesan Chancellor initially said no, prompting criticism from Church of Ireland figures and concern from the Bishop of Coventry, before the ruling was overturned by the Dean of the Arches. As a result, chancellors have formed a working party to attempt to better harmonise and modernise their local regulations.
Judge Collier, who is chairing this project, said that there would not be one single national code to account for regional sensitivities, but that the new regulations expected to emerge next year should accommodate the sweeping cultural shifts in British society in recent decades.
“Hopefully, there’ll be more convergence and more sense, and it will fit better to what people’s expectations are,” he said. For instance, why should people not be allowed to mark a headstone with the word “Gran” or “Nan” rather than the more formal “Grandmother”, he asked.
Another key issue was the implicit theology behind inscriptions. All chancellors had to uphold the Christian character of churchyards, but the new rules would probably make a subtle shift towards to requiring any message to “not be inconsistent” with Christian doctrine rather than, as present, “to be consistent” with established teaching.
Nevertheless, Judge Collier had no illusions about whether simplified and updated regulations could solve the problem entirely. “If somebody wants to have ‘To infinity and beyond’ — is that inconsistent, or is it not inconsistent?” Some clergy would have no objection, while others would see that as falling short of a Christian theology of heaven. “I don’t think the issues are going to go away, but we, hopefully, will begin to attempt to diffuse them.”
MANY clergy, it seems, are simply tired of trying to hold the line in these complex and charged disputes over the commemoration of loved ones.
Dr Byrne said that she had been dragged into bitter rows between rival branches of the same family over what statue should, or should not, be placed on a grave, which had spilled over into the vicarage. At other times, the local newspaper and Facebook had been full of spiteful remarks about the unkempt nature of the graveyard, although the untidy graves were simply those where no relative of the deceased was left alive to look after it.
Mr Barr-Hamilton had similar feelings. “When something goes wrong, you are left holding the can. It’s your fault, even though it’s not your fault, because you’re the person on the ground.” He makes a point of telling every ordinand he encounters to work in churches only where the graveyard has long been closed to new burials.
If everything works out, you never see the family again. But, if anything goes even slightly wrong, grievances against the church can be held on to for generations. “It’s more work with very little missional benefit,” he said. “We maybe have too much grace — you give an inch, and people like to take a mile.”