Church Graveyard

THE CHURCHYARD REGULATIONS

Incumbents and priests-in-charge are temporary custodians not merely of the church building but, where there is one, of its burial ground. Responsibility for its care and maintenance rests with the PCC. Churchyards are an important feature of both rural and urban communities: an historic record of successive generations, a home for funerary monuments of architectural and aesthetic excellence, a setting for the church itself (many of which are listed buildings), and a place for reflection and prayer. It should be borne in mind that churchyards are different in their nature from municipal cemeteries. In addition, the upkeep of a churchyard is a considerable burden upon the limited resources of PCC funds.

Parishioners, those named on the electoral roll, and those dying within the parish all have a legal right of burial in the parochial burial ground. This right is not restricted to the baptised nor to members of the worshipping community. Thus the clergy are brought into direct contact with relatives of deceased parishioners in circumstances of extreme distress and often in a highly charged environment. Whilst this provides a valuable opportunity for ministry and outreach it can also create pastoral difficulties.

It is essential that the bereaved understand the meaning and consequences of burial in consecrated ground. Two particular features arise:

First, the nature of the rite of burial is to say 'farewell' to the deceased and to commend them to the mercy and love of God in Christ to await the transformation of resurrection. There is accordingly a theological finality to the burial of all interments, including those of cremated remains, in ground consecrated according to the rites of the Church of England. The prospect of exhumation at some future date and the relocation of remains must be ruled out.

Secondly, the bereaved must understand that by seeking a burial in consecrated ground, they are submitting to the jurisdiction of the consistory court which regulates the type of headstone or other marker which may be erected. This jurisdiction exists for reasons which are in part theological and in part aesthetic, since what may be unobjectionable in a municipal cemetery might be considered inappropriate (or even offensive) in an historic churchyard. It is the responsibility of the clergy to bring these matters to the attention of the bereaved at the earliest opportunity, and to inform them of these Regulations, so that their decision to seek an interment in consecrated ground must be fully informed. A failure to do so, however traumatic the pastoral situation, is a dereliction of duty and may prove more damaging in the long term. Many parishes find it helpful to provide a handout containing this information which can be taken away and read by the bereaved, and the chancellor commends this practice.

These Regulations are designed to encourage best practice and to eliminate bad practice. It is unlawful for a monument to be introduced into a churchyard without permission. Generally such permission derives from the chancellor in the form of a faculty. However, for administrative convenience and to minimise expense, the chancellor delegates to the incumbent the authority to permit the introduction of a monument provided it is of a type which complies with the detailed provisions contained in these Regulations. The written application which accompanies these Regulations should be used in all cases (see Appendix E). During any vacancy, and in the absence of a priest-in-charge, the authority is exercised by the rural dean.

Applications for memorials should generally not be made until six months have passed since the interment. Not merely does this allow the ground to settle, but the passage of time permits a more reflective decision to be made than is often the case in the naturally emotional state of the early stages of grief. All close family members need to be consulted and a consensus achieved. The incumbent can offer help at this time in making suggestions to the bereaved of the types of memorial which might be introduced by reference to photographs or by pointing out examples in the churchyard itself. If this conversation precedes a visit to the stonemason it should avoid the difficulty and disappointment engendered by the selection of an inappropriate design. Although the grave itself is the property of the incumbent, any memorial will belong to the heir-at-law of the person commemorated and that person carries the duty to maintain it and the legal liability for its safety.

A headstone is a public statement about the person who is being commemorated. Making the right choice of stone, design and inscription is important not only to the relatives or friends who are going to provide the memorial, but also to the wider community because of the effect which the headstone may have upon the appearance of the churchyard. Attractive, well conceived designs by skilled and imaginative craftsmen should be encouraged. In the search for a wider range of designs than those usually seen, reference should be made to the Churchyards Handbook, the booklet Memorials by Artists and other resources which can be made available by the DAC. Sculpture or other statuary is not discouraged but must be authorised by faculty.

Also to be encouraged are fulsome inscriptions which give a flavour of the life of the person commemorated rather than blandly recording a name and dates. Epitaphs should honour the dead, comfort the living and inform posterity. They will be read long after the bereaved have themselves passed away. A memorial stone is not the right place for a statement about how members of the family feel about the deceased nor how they would address him or her were they still alive. Passages of scripture, which have a timeless quality, are to be preferred.