An undertaker in Poole, Dorset, UK is now offering to provide Quick Response (QR) Codes to be included on the headstones of graves, or positioned on or near other items commemorating the departed such as trees, shrubs, seats &c. The code links to a page on a specific website and gives an opportunity for the inclusion of text, photographs and video material, and for subsequent updates with additional material. It is reported that a QP Code on a headstone was first used at St Mary the Virgin, Lytchett Matravers.
At first sight, this initiative appears to provide a flexible means of providing detailed information on a headstone that would otherwise be impossible to include, but the use of this technology does raise a number of questions regarding it use and its long-term value.
There are normally quite rigorous controls on the materials, shape, location and inscriptions on headstones in most churchyards and graveyards, and consecrated ground within Church of England churchyards falls within the faculty jurisdiction of its Consistory Courts. The management of these churchyards falls within the Pastoral Measure 1983, and whilst individual dioceses have developed their own Churchyard Regulations, these encompass the requirements of the measure and the guidance within the Churchyards Handbook (3rd Edition.).
In the Diocese of Exeter as elsewhere, a limited authority is delegated by the Chancellor to the incumbent, priest-in-charge (or Rural Dean during a vacancy) to allow headstones to be erected which fall within the terms and conditions of the delegation. With regard to the Epitaph,
‘Inscriptions must be simple, reverent, appropriate and of Christian significance. They must be incised, and lettering may be in black, white or silver paint or gold leaf (not gold paint). Plastic and lead inlaid lettering is not permitted. Subsequent additions to an inscription must be approved separately. By way of advertisement or trademark, only the mason’s name may be inscribed at the side or on the reverse in unleaded letters, no larger than ½” (13 mm) in height.’
The Exeter Churchyard Regulations include a Pro Forma for Application for Introduction of Monument or Tablet in a Churchyard, (Annex A), whereas those of the Oxford Diocese are more prescriptive and in addition to:
‘fall[ing] squarely within the ambit of these Regulations (and any supplementary regulations imposed by the PCC and authorised by the Consistory Court)’,
‘a contract is entered into by the legal personal representative or executor (usually, but not always, a close relative of the deceased), seeking to erect the it. The agreement is to be in the form [within the Regulations]’,
and includes the condition that:
‘[the Applicant has] also understand that the authorisation that is given . . . . to erect a memorial is subject to the provisions of the Pastoral Measure 1983 (or any replacement Measure) and in the first instance only permits the memorial to remain in the churchyard for a period of 100 years. [The Applicant] acknowledge[s] that this period of time may be shortened, or extended, by a faculty of the Consistory Court.
The main problem with the use of QR Codes in this context would therefore appear to be three-fold:
- Given the potential of including a wide range of material via a QR Code, the requirements of being ‘simple, reverent, appropriate and of Christian significance’ are unlikely to be met;
- The content of the material accessed by the QR Code is controlled by the executor (or anyone with an appropriate password), and not by the incumbent, and may be changed at any time in the future;
- The longevity of QR Code technology or the associated web facilities to access that data may not withstand the test of time, (e.g. the video recording technologies of: Betamax; VHS; and DVDs).
Of these, the technology issue would seem to be the most problematic, since it is necessary to match the longevity of a physical memorial, (i.e. for up to 100 years or so), with an upgradable electronic data-retention system.
Whilst control over the content will prove difficult if left unchecked, the existing faculty system provides a framework within which the use of QP codes can be licenced and controlled. Given the widespread interest in genealogy, there are significant business opportunities for a holder of comprehensive information on the deceased. Perhaps the Church of England should take the initiative and develop such a system itself whereby it would be able to retain control, monitor the information, and generate income?
The Church of England cannot ignore this new technology. As a very minimum it must revise its guidance to acknowledge the potential widespread use of a technique that will seem attractive to many of those wishing to remember departed relatives. It might also explore whether it should itself become involved in the licensing and use of this new technology.