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Church court grants faculty for exhumation of atheist buried in consecrated ground

12 April 2024

Family wins bid to have body removed

Creative Commons/Mike Faherty

Bognor Regis Town Cemetery, in 2014

Bognor Regis Town Cemetery, in 2014

AS AN exception to the principle of the permanence of Christian burial, the Consistory Court of the diocese of Chichester has granted a faculty for the exhumation of the body of a lifelong atheist from the consecrated part of a municipal cemetery.

In March 2023, Christopher Anthony Reid died of pneumonia at the age of 63. At the time of his death, Mr Reid, who had mental-health issues, had lost contact with his immediate family. His carer informed the authorities that he had no details of Mr Reid’s next of kin.

The local authority buried Mr Reid in Bognor Regis Town Cemetery in an area consecrated in accordance with the rites of the Church of England. In September 2023, Mr Reid’s widow and three daughters learned of his death. They were particularly troubled by the choice of his final resting place.

His wife and daughters said that Mr Reid was an atheist and resolutely opposed to the practice of burial. They applied for a faculty to have his remains exhumed and cremated, and his ashes to be scattered, which was what, they believed, he would have wanted.

In their written statements to the Chancellor, the Worshipful Mark Hill KC, Mr Reid’s family said that he would have been outraged at his final burial place, that he had a preference for science over religion, and that he “despised” three things: “The monarchy, the Government, and the Church of England”. The Chancellor said that those views were “highly material” to his decision.

To understand the ecclesiastical law that applied to this case, the Chancellor said, it was “necessary to step back and consider the role of the Church of England in the nation’s life”. Its civic functions were not confined to its members, but extended to the population as a whole. As a general proposition, the Chancellor said, “the public, irrespective of their religious affiliations . . . have a legal right to be married in their parish church and buried in its burial ground.”

Article 9 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms gave rights that were abbreviated to freedom of religion. That right extended beyond religion to include belief systems and world-views. Thus, the rights protected included atheism, agnosticism, and humanism.

The Chancellor emphasised that he made no criticism of the local authority, the funeral directors, or the cleric involved in Mr Reid’s burial and the choice of a plot in the consecrated part of the cemetery. They “could not reasonably have been expected to have known of his atheistic beliefs”, and they “acted entirely properly”, the Chancellor said.

But, unquestionably, the evidence established a mistake, because those responsible for deciding Mr Reid’s final resting place had no knowledge of his “aversion to Christianity in general and the Church of England in particular”. That would have been sufficient to dispose of the case without recourse to the Human Rights Convention.

Article 9 of the Convention, however, was “both relevant and compelling”, because it “reinforces and undergirds the need for an exception to be made allowing an exhumation to take place”, the Chancellor said. Mr Reid’s strongly held atheistic beliefs were “entitled to the same level of respect in death as they would in life”.

The faculty was granted, and Mr Reid’s family were at liberty to have his body cremated and to deal with his ashes as they saw fit. They were required to bear the costs of the of the petition for the faculty, and those costs had to be settled in full before the faculty was implemented.

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