Non-Christian symbols on churchyard headstones

In the recent judgment Re St. Mary Shotesham [2024] ECC Nor 4, the petitioner sought to introduce a memorial stone into the churchyard of St Mary’s, Shotesham. The points at issue were whether the depiction of the Star of David at the top of the stone infringed the Diocesan Churchyard Regulations issued by Arlow Ch in 2016 and, if so, whether a faculty should nevertheless be granted [1].

Etherington Ch. noted that he had encountered this issue before as Chancellor of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich in Re All Saints Honington [2017] ECC SEI 3 [*]; in this case he was asked to approve a faculty to permit the depiction of the Star of David on the War Grave in the churchyard of  RAF Pilot Officer Harold Rosofsky; his plane (which he was flying) on 7 September 1939 crashed due to mechanical failure, killing both the Pilot Officer in question and his crew. They were buried in the churchyard.

A standard War Graves memorial was erected with an engraved Cross. To confuse matters, Harold, who was Jewish, had been carrying a card identifying him as a Christian for had the accident not supervened, was intended to fly over Germany. Consequently, his body lay with his crew alongside him in the churchyard until an archivist working with a well-known and highly respected charity concerned with Jewish ex-servicemen saw the memorial in the churchyard, made some enquiries and discovered the underlying facts [**]. The Chancellor noted:

“[3]. A Cross had been placed on his memorial in error for understandable reasons, none of which were the fault of the deceased or his family. Clearly, the application for the removal of the Cross could not possibly be denied. The question of whether it could be replaced by the Star of David was a more difficult question, but one which I resolved in the Petitioner’s favour”.

In his determination of Re All Saints Honington [2017] ECC SEI 3,  paragraphs [47] to [50], he drew upon the the doctrine of exceptionality which provides for circumstances which cannot sensibly be envisaged by any rule or regulation, however carefully drafted. He noted:

“…save in exceptional circumstances of the sort demonstrated in this case, an image of the Star of David would not ordinarily be permitted to be placed on a monument in a churchyard or cemetery within the jurisdiction of the court for the reasons given in this judgment…whilst not expressly prohibited by the Rules at present, the placing of a symbol primarily associated with any another faith than Christianity, as expressed in the beliefs of the Church of England and enshrined in its doctrines, on any monument in consecrated ground within the jurisdiction of this court is ordinarily impermissible”.

With regard to the instant case, the Chancellor stated that the first question to determine was whether, ordinarily, a symbol of a religious faith, other than Christianity, may be placed on a memorial stone in a churchyard or area of a cemetery under the jurisdiction of this court [5]. Burial in a churchyard is the entitlement of any parishioner provided the churchyard is open; there is no requirement for a parishioner to belong to any, or any particular faith [6]. However, there was no untrammelled right to any sort of memorial or stone, or inscription on it. That supposed right does not exist [7].

“[8] Symbols, other than the Christian cross are therefore generally inappropriate: either they will be a reflection of a religious faith other than Christianity or a secular or political symbol that would not be suitable on a memorial stone. There is, of course, no requirement for any symbol on a stone and not all Christians elect to have a Cross.

[9] There is no question other than that the Jewish religion and the Christian religion are intimately connected, but they are not the same religion and they have conflicting beliefs…A religious symbol on a tombstone is understood to be there to declare the deceased’s faith. Symbols for other purposes, religious or secular, are not ordinarily permitted on memorials”.

The review of the background to the application [10] to [14], indicated that the Petitioner’s husband, Raz, died having contracted Motor Neurone Disease (MND); he was born into the Jewish faith, not brought up strictly within it, but in a family which celebrated Jewish customs and traditions. He joined a kibbutz as a young man, and for a time when he returned home, he began attending synagogue becoming a recognisable figure who carried the scrolls [10,11]. He subsequently became attracted to the Quaker faith although he retained his links to his Jewish identity and shared as a family.

In the last ten years he had taken a particular interest in his Jewish ancestry; however, that after considerable thought during his struggle with MND, he came to the conclusion that he wished to have a Christian funeral service and expressed views about how he wished it to be conducted. It was in this church and it fully celebrated his life and background [13]. The Chancellor indicated his appreciation of the significance given to the Star of David by the family and understood the history of the symbol, and the inter-faith emphasis that formed part of the funeral [14].

In his conclusion and determination, the Chancellor stated:

“[15]. Unfortunately, this does not mean that those of other faiths or whose ancestry or culture involves other faiths are able to display these as symbols in a Christian churchyard…It is always open to people to be buried in secular churchyards or those that are dedicated to another particular faith. Very occasionally, a section of an existing churchyard is designated for Jewish burials because of the unavailability of any Jewish cemetery. This is not the case here”.

“[16]. Judaism, Christianity and Islam (in chronological order) are all monotheistic religions worshipping the one God. Their specific beliefs, however, are different. I can well imagine that a Christian Cross on a headstone in a Jewish cemetery or Jewish section of a cemetery might well be viewed as improper, whatever its motivation”.

“[17]. There is also a complication here in that I read the Petitioner to be saying that the family do not want the Star of David as an expression of Raz’s Jewish faith, which would make one wonder why he was being buried in an Anglican churchyard, but rather of his Jewish descent of which he was understandably proud…”

“[18]. I do not know whether Raz specifically wanted the Star of David on his memorial stone or whether it was a subsequent wish of the family, but I am afraid that I do not judge the facts here constitute an exceptional reason for departing from the normal rules, unlike, for instance, Pilot Officer Rosofsky whose particular circumstances did”.

“[19]. Whilst the wishes of families and loved-ones are always taken into account when considering a memorial stone, there are regulations and they have to be applied fairly. If symbols other than the Christian Cross were allowed in one case (unless wholly exceptional) then they would have to be allowed in every case that was of a similar nature. Symbols, other than the Cross, are requested on occasions. Requests over the years have ranged from those relating to people’s descent or backgrounds, through all kinds of passions and interests (genuinely held and often an identifying feature of the deceased) but with very few exceptions (War Graves and the like) they are not permitted”.

“[20]. The rest of the memorial is permissible and I will permit the bramble given the deceased’s love of the natural world. A quotation from the Old Testament would also be acceptable – e.g. ‘May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life’ – from Samuel 25:29”.

[21].”I regret that in this judgment I have to rule against the Star of David being permitted to be placed as a symbol on the memorial stone as requested by the Petitioner…I did ask through the Registry whether the Petitioner might prefer to have my successor as Chancellor (who is shortly to take office) to judge this petition but she preferred not to wait”.

[*] Note: Except where explicitly stated, the paragraph numbers in this post refer to those in the judgment Re St. Mary Shotesham [2024] ECC Nor 4. There is a review of this case by Shirani Herbert in the Church Times (£), Jewish symbol permitted in Church of England graveyard in exception to rule (08 September 2017).

[**] A similar, though (legally) unrelated example was reported in the Jewish News on 20 April 2024, Second World War hero receives new headstone with Star of David after 80 years Flying officer Harold. A. Devon was killed in 1944 aged 20 when the Lancaster Bomber he was on mission in was shot down during the Nuremberg raid. The Commonwealth War Grave Commission buried Harold in the pilots section of Hanover War Cemetery under a cross. However, following the intervention of a relative, a new stone has now been erected on his grave with a Star of David.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Non-Christian symbols on churchyard headstones" in Law & Religion UK, 9 July 2024,


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