Consistory court sorts out irregular features of the burial of some of Tom Sharpe’s ashes – but what next?
In our post of 15 June 2014 we commented on the Ascension Edition of the Ecclesiastical Law Society’s Newsletter Gospel and Law which included some “tests of problem-solving skills by way of fun and exercise for the little grey cells” for its younger members about to embark on the forthcoming exam season. We suggested that to these, which “may bear some but limited connection to real situations”, might be added the following recent problem, yet to be resolved:
In fulfilment of his wishes, the long-term partner of a popular, well-known author [Tom Sharpe] made an unauthorized burial of his ashes, in the same Northumberland cemetery as his father is laid to rest. The ashes were buried in a small hole dug by hand, and the spot was marked by a bottle of whisky, a cigar and his favourite pen”,
and suggested that the legal, pastoral and media issues needed to be addressed; we also provided links to media reports: the Church Times (£) and the Daily Mail, here and here. The former has now come before the ecclesiastical courts and is reported in the judgment Re St Aidan Thockrington  ECC New 1. The Newcastle Chronicle carries additional reporting and photographs.
The petition concerns an application by the Reverend Michael J Slade, vicar of St Aidan’s Church, Thockrington for a Restoration Order in respect of the churchyard at St Aidan’s Church; the respondent cited on the application is Dr Montserrat Verdaguer Clavera (“Dr Verdaguer”), “whose actions necessitated this application” ; and “in the terms that Mr D R B Burn, on behalf of the PCC, be required to unearth whatever had been buried by Dr Verdaguer and restore the site to its previous condition” .
The Chancellor noted that “the domestic arrangements of Mr Sharpe are not clear but it seems that he was living apart from his wife prior to his death and in some sort of a relationship with Dr Verdaguer. He was apparently cremated and, according to what Dr Verdaguer has later claimed, the majority of his ashes were taken by his widow, but some were left with Dr Verdaguer.” The author had wished to be buried at Thockrington, and in 1999 Mrs Sharpe contacted Newcastle Diocese through a solicitor, enquiring as to the possibility of his being buried there. She was informed that he would have had at least to have been a regular churchgoer at St Aidan’s for that to be possible .
The sequence of events relating to the burial of some of Tom Sharpe’s ashes and the other items is detailed in paragraphs 3 to 8, although the Chancellor commented [emphasis added]:
“15.1 am wholly unable to accept Dr Verdaguer’s account of what happened and, in particular, that no human remains were buried by her … However, it is essentially irrelevant as to whether or not she is telling the truth about having buried an empty biodegradable casket. She has admitted at every stage that she entered the churchyard and buried items therein. … At no stage did she have any permission to enter the churchyard and bury any items therein. She had made no approach to Revd Slade [sic] or the PCC or any other relevant body for such permission …
16. I have no idea of the true motives of Dr Verdaguer in doing what she did. In her statement she says that she was asked by Sharpe to write his biography and the trip was in connection with that. That may be the case and, as Mrs Sharpe suggested, it is possible that her actions were a publicity stunt, perhaps in relation to that. Her motives are irrelevant. What she did was wholly unauthorised, a clear trespass and entirely disrespectful of those properly and lawfully interred within the churchyard. By happy chance she did not actually disturb any grave. Nonetheless her actions prompted this application, entirely properly brought by Revd Slade, to ascertain as precisely as possible what had happened and to have the churchyard restored to its position prior to her actions.”
On 3 November 2015 the Chancellor issued Interim Directions as a result of which on 13 November 2015, the Revd Mr Slade, with PPC member Mr Peter Ramsden accompanied Mr Burn to the churchyard; there Mr Burn unearthed some loose mortal remains (ashes) from a small plastic bag, a medium sized bottle of Famous Grouse whisky, a fountain pen, two small tea-light candles and two red plastic numerals (broken); a photographic record was made and the surface then made good. All items unearthed were retained by Mr Slade for safe keeping .
The Interim Directions having been complied with and the Churchyard restored to its former conditions, the Chancellor made a further order and directions :
“(a) that Respondent pay the costs of the application [£1,320 inc. VAT] within 28 days of the date of the Judgement and Order, [5 January 2016]; (b) upon payment of the costs, but in any event within 28 days of the date of the Judgement and Order, the Respondent may inform the Registrar in writing of any proposals she has as to the collection by her or her agent of the items that were unearthed and which are currently retained by the Applicant. Any such collection is to take place within 56 days hereof; and (c) in the absence of the payment of the costs of this application and/or any communication from the Respondent in compliance with (b) above or in the absence of collection of all items within 56 days thereof, the Chancellor will give further Directions for the disposal of all of the unearthed items, including what he finds are human remains in the form of ashes.”
Whilst the issues arising from the illegal burials in the churchyard have been addressed, there is clearly an important rider to the decision of the court: what Directions could the Chancellor give under the paragraph 17(c) scenario if by default the Church is left with the decision on the future treatment of the exhumed ashes (and other materials)? These are currently within the safe-keeping of the Church and the majority of the ashes are said to buried in a grave in Mieres cemetery Spain . The deadline for action by the Respondent set by the court ends in early March; we will await the outcome with interest.
 Revised version of judgment from 4 February 2016.