Churchyard memorials which cause affront and offence

Although it is always open for a person who wishes to introduce a memorial, or to modify an existing one, to submit a petition to the consistory court, in Re Holy Trinity Drayton Parslow [2018] ECC Oxf 3* permission was refused inter alia as it was deemed that the proposed alteration would be an affront and offence to the parishioners.

Background

The father of the petitioner died in September 2009 and was buried in Drayton Parslow churchyard the following April; the present memorial was set up in in 2014 under the authority of the Archdeacon of Buckingham. The inscription currently sets out the name and dates of the deceased and describes him as ‘Father, Teacher, Linguist’. There is an empty line before the words ‘Father, Teacher, Linguist’ in which the petitioner, Mr Mark Alexander wishes to insert the single word, ‘Beloved’.

In 2010 the petitioner was convicted of murdering his father and was sentenced to life imprisonment. At his trial, “the Judge referred to the steps the Petitioner had taken to conceal his father’s body, after he had left it to decompose for a time. The Petitioner ‘took very considerable steps to bury the body in three layers of mortar and a final layer of commercial cement in the back garden of the home which the deceased and his father [sic] had shared. Thereafter he took steps to place a great deal of soil over the concrete grave with the intent that it should not be discovered'” [32].

Judgment

The petitioner sought permission to amend the inscription on the memorial to his late father. The Reverend and Worshipful Chancellor, Alexander McGregor, outlined the legal issues involved:

“[10]. The diocesan churchyard regulations set out the scope of the authority which is delegated to incumbents (and in certain cases the area dean or archdeacon) to authorise the introduction of memorials in a churchyard. It is always open to a person who wishes to introduce a memorial to submit a petition to the consistory court. That includes cases where: (a) a memorial cannot be authorised under the regulations; (b) where an incumbent, area dean or archdeacon declines to authorise a memorial which can be authorised by them; or (c) where an incumbent etc. is prepared only to authorise a memorial in a form different from that which the applicant wishes to introduce.

[11]. Where a petition is submitted, the consistory court considers the petition on its merits, taking into account the case advanced by the petitioner and any objections received from interested persons (who may or may not choose to become parties opponent). In case (a) there will have been no previous decision.

In cases (b) and (c) there will have been a previous decision, but the petition is not an appeal from the decision of the incumbent (or other person who exercises an equivalent role under the churchyard regulations); nor is it a review of the incumbent’s decision or of any views underlying that decision that may have been expressed by the PCC. The matter is considered afresh by the court. The consistory court’s jurisdiction in proceedings for obtaining a faculty is an original jurisdiction; it is not an appellate or supervisory jurisdiction in respect of the decisions taken by others.

[12]. As the court is considering the matter afresh it is unnecessary to make findings as to the true reason the PCC was opposed to the memorial as originally proposed in 2014. It is also unnecessary for the court to consider whether the decision taken by the Archdeacon in 2014, or the decisions that informed it that were taken by the PCC, were rationally and fairly reached. The court’s role is to consider the entire matter itself and come to its own decision.”

The law concerning the introduction of memorials in a churchyard was outlined in Re St Mary the Virgin Burghfield [2011] Oxford Const. Ct, Bursell Ch, “and the same principles apply to a petition for authority to alter an existing memorial, including to amend an inscription” [12]. Within the Oxford diocese, principles concerning the application of the current Churchyard Regulations are explained in the Chancellor’s Explanatory Note (2016), and he considered that these should also inform the exercise of the court’s discretion in considering a petition for the introduction of a memorial or for the amendment of an inscription on an existing memorial [16]. Furthermore, he noted that in Re Christ Church, Harwood [2002] 1 WLR 2055 at 2056 Holden Ch, in considering a petition for the introduction of a memorial in the churchyard, said ‘When deciding whether to allow the petition before me I have had to be sure that what is allowed is not an affront or offence to others.’ Chancellor McGregor continued [17]:

“I would refine that principle somewhat. Whether something is an offence to others should not be treated as a purely subjective question. It must also involve objective considerations. I would state the proposition as being that the court should not allow a memorial that could reasonably amount to an affront or offence to others. It is not enough for someone simply to say that a particular memorial would offend him; the court has to decide whether it would be reasonable for a person to be offended. To hold otherwise would improperly fetter the court’s exercise of its discretion and in effect confer a veto on a person who did not want a particular memorial to be introduced in a churchyard”.

The Petition was formally opposed by the rector and one of the churchwardens, and also by the party opponent; in addition, a letter of objection was sent by two parishioners in response to the public notice. The petitioner had the support of his mother and of his late father’s sisters; the Chaplain at HMP had also sent a letter of support. Although his mother indicated that she believed that the Petitioner could not have killed his father, the Chancellor noted [22]:

“[a]s the Petitioner has been convicted of doing just that, and that this court takes judicial notice of the verdict of the Crown Court, those aspects of the Petitioner’s case that rely on the support of his mother are significantly weakened”.

The chaplain’s letter provided only limited assistance to the court, since it only took account of what might be apposite so far as the Petitioner’s wishes are concerned [23]. However, the remarks of HHJ Reddihough in the Crown Court at Reading when passing sentence on the Petitioner on 10th September 2010 were of importance “because they are based on a careful consideration of the Petitioner’s relationship with his father and the circumstances relating to his murder of his father” [31].

The Chancellor concluded:

“[39] The Petitioner’s wish to amend the inscription is certainly at odds with the way in which he treated his father’s body after he had killed him. The Petitioner treated his father’s body in a sacrilegious manner and sought to hide it, thereby preventing decent burial. That of itself is enough, in my view, to bring the balance down against the Petitioner…It would, objectively considered, be an affront and an offence to the parishioners at large for a memorial in the churchyard – a memorial marking the place where the his body now lies – to state that the late Samuel Alexander was a ‘Beloved’ father when it is known that his son not only murdered him but subsequently treated his body in the ways described in the sentencing remarks referred to above.”

“[41]. … I take the view that if this court were to permit the amendment of the inscription sought by the Petitioner, that could be seen as an expression by this court of a disagreement with the verdict returned and sentence passed in the Crown Court. I note what the Petitioner says about it being possible for someone to love the person he has killed; but the position here is that the Petitioner continues to deny killing his father. The amendment to the inscription he seeks would be likely to appear to the public at large as an expression of that denial. That is not something this court should facilitate.”

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Churchyard memorials which cause affront and offence" in Law & Religion UK, 11 July 2018, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2018/07/11/churchyard-memorials-which-cause-affront-and-offence/

1 thought on “Churchyard memorials which cause affront and offence

  1. Pingback: Ecclesiastical court judgments – July 2018 | Law & Religion UK

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *