To what extent should churchyards be used for exercise?
On 13 August, the BBC’s Magazine that ”answers the questions behind the news” explored the views of a number of individuals and organizations on whether it is wrong to exercise in a graveyard? The example quoted was that of a fitness club owned by former British Olympic athlete Daley Thompson that has been criticised for holding part of an exercise class in Putney Old Burial Ground in south-west London. Concerns were raised as a consequence of a YouTube video advertising DaleyFitness, although the group’s CEO, Gavin Sunshine, says that other groups, including schoolchildren playing rounders, theatre productions and other personal trainers had used the burial ground.
The Putney Old Burial Ground Management Plan, 2010 – 2015 indicates “[t]he site is owned by the Church of England Southwark Diocese and amendments to the Open Spaces Acts of 1887 and 1906 have allowed the Church of England to pass the maintenance and financial responsibility of closed, or otherwise non-viable, churchyards to the local authority. The site is managed and maintained by Wandsworth Borough Council, with responsibility for the site taken by the Parks Service (part of the Department of Leisure and Amenity Services). The gardens are designated as ‘No Dogs’ under the Council’s Dog Control Orders”.
There have been no interments at the site in more than 160 years, but those buried there still remain. The burial ground became a public garden in 1886, and eight park benches sit around the graves for passers-by to sit. The BBC Magazine notes that a report by Wandsworth Council classes the site as “essentially a small ‘sitting out’ area, [which] provides a destination to walk to and an area for local workers to have lunch in”.
It seems unlikely that the exercise described in the BBC report could be regarded as falling with the description of “riotous, violent, or indecent behaviour” within the section 2, the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860; although the provisions of Canon F 15 Of churches not to be profaned are arguably wider, including “any meeting therein for temporal object inconsistent with the sanctity of the place,” it seems unlikely that “the said churchwardens or their assistants [will] take care to restrain the offender and if necessary proceed against him according to law”.
Nevertheless, the health and safety issues are an important factor that needs to be considered by the church, the council, and anyone organizing activities within a churchyard or burial ground. Liability for accidents within a churchyard was a consideration in the recently reported case Re Holy Trinity Northwood  Lichfield Const Ct, Stephen Eyre Ch – in an attempt to retrieve a Frisbee, a child slipped and impaled his head on the point of a finial of the railings around the church, causing injury to his jaw. The church was strongly advised by its insurers in order to effect compliance with the Occupiers Liability Act 1984”.
The Advisory Commission of the General Synod has produced advice Churchyards; Liability for Personal Injury Accidents, (revised 2013), which can arise both in negligence and under the Occupiers’ Liability Acts 1957 and 1984. Accidents resulting from unstable tombstones are a common concern, and further advice is available in The Maintenance of Monuments on Closed Churchyards, (January 2007), which concludes:
“18. The legal position may be summarised as follows. The primary responsibility for the safety of a monument in a churchyard closed by Order in Council rests with the owner of the monument. If the owner defaults, a secondary responsibility is imposed upon the body having the duty to maintain the closed churchyard. This may be the PCC, pursuant to Section 215(1) of the Local Government Act 1972. Where, however, a local authority has taken over the maintenance of the churchyard under Section 215(2) its maintenance obligation extends to the safety of the monuments there. In that event the PCC is discharged from further liability as from the time of transfer and, if sued for injury caused by a dangerous monument it is entitled to seek indemnity or contribution from the local authority.”
Nevertheless, those organizing exercise sessions &c in churchyards owe a duty of care to those involved, and anyone playing “graveyard ghosts” should be aware of the risks involved when hiding behind a leaning tombstone.
In addition to exercise within churchyards, a post last year considered Rights of way across churchyards which in addition to churchgoers are used by walkers and runners (such as David whose regular routes include paths through six churchyards). The issue of rights of way across consecrated land were considered by the Planning Inspectorate in relation to St John the Baptist, Widford, (Herts), here, a critique of which was the subject of the LLM (Canon Law) dissertation of Ian Thornton.
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