A church court has just supported a vicar who refused to allow the word 'Dad' on his gravestones. Fr Stephen Troll explains why the decision is the right one.
LAST WEM AN ANGLICAN Vicar from the diocese of Blackburn was again in the news, over his refusal to allow a free choice to the family of a deceased parishioner in their choice of words on the headstone. By and large, the unfortunate priest concerned has had to endure almost universal condemnation, despite a consistory court hearing held by the Chancellor of the diocese deciding in his favour. And, on the face of it, it seems pretty harsh that a bereaved family should be denied the right to choose the words on their own family gravestone.
The facts are not so simple as they first appears. Although it is true that an Anglican parish priest (a "Vicar" or "Rector") is in charge of the churchyard in fact the freehold it vested in him as incumbent of the parish he actually has very little personal say in what takes place there. He is required by law to allow the burial there of any parishioner, even of someone who happens to die in the parish. Dead airmen, falling from the skies during the last War, were frequently buried in the churchyard of the parish where they fell, or were washed up on the coast. The Vicar's sole prerogative is to choose the actual place at which the grave is dug. And even though he is a freeholder, it is all duty and precious little advantage: he is entitled to keep the grass cuttings, but must have the permission of the diocesan Parsonages Board before cutting down a tree. Why make such a fuss over an inscription on a gravestone?
When the priest has so little direct control over his churchyard, why worry overmuch about someone's choice of words? After all, at a time of bereavement, people are at their most sensitive, and the last thing they want is interference in their design for a memorial, least of all the kind that appears to lack any pastoral care for their feelings.
There is in existence a book entitled The Churchyards Handbook, now in its third edition. It attempts to provide practical help and advice to those responsible for maintaining churchyards and by and large, does it very successfully. How else would such a book run to three editions? Anyone who has any doubts should compare a local churchyard (which is under the control of ecclesiastical law) with an average statemaintained cemetery. Now, of course, every priest or minister worthy of his calling sets out to offer the very highest standard of pastoral care to the bereaved, as befits a Christian vocation to the service of God's people. But a place of burial belongs to the whole community, not just to those grieving the loss of a loved one who may not have visited the churchyard before, and who frequently do not visit it as frequently afterwards as some who live in the locality.
In a state cemetery, there is very little restriction on either the type of stone, or the shape of the memorial chosen, or on the wording selected by the purchasers of the stone. Highly polished black marble sits uncomfortably next to whist marble, of all shapes and sizes. Emotive messages abound, which were comforting in a moment of great sadness, but, on longer and calmer reflection, are less than appropriate as messages for eternity. As befits a state burial place, many of the inscriptions indicate a faith or lack of it which would not be suitable in a consecrated Christian burial ground.
I have seen numerous such stones. inscriptions and decorations of headstones, in various cemeteries, in the course of my ministry. There is a peculiar lack of comfort there, despite the freedom of expression allowed to those buying head stones. I suspect it has much to do with the commercial pressures of the funeral business, especially where the funeral director is also involved in selling monuments.
So many of the stones on offer in catalogues are unimaginative, mass-produced, and cheaply made. But they still cost large sums of money to buy and install on a grave.
A churchyard which is prop erly managed, however, avoids the worst excesses of the civic cemetery, and is a place of deep comfort and consolation for those who visit it, not only for the recently bereaved, but for those with perhaps generations of family members at rest there, surrounded by mellowing stones in keeping with the general appearance of the church building itself, and the surrounding walls of the churchyard.
The choice of stone and of its inscription does affect the local community, and inscriptions are eagerly read and the dead remembered in prayer. As a freshly-appointed Rector, I used to find it rather disconcerting to pass by the graves of generations of my predecessors, long-deceased priests and their families, as well as my immediate predecessor, who lies near the church door beside his wife, as if still to greet the congregation on its way into the building.
But now, years later, I too find the churchyard a consoling place to walk and to ponder eternity, surrounded by my parishioners of all previous ages in this ancient village. My
destiny, to lie beneath the green sward, with the privilege, as a priest, of being able to know roughly where. The continuity of my ministry with that of so many generations, who rest around me while I say Mass, is something to welcome, as a reminder that our eternal destiny lies together with Christ.
It is important, therefore, to have rules for churchyards, rules not made by the parish priest but by the Chancellor. The priest is there only to administer the rules, but in the name of the local community whose churchyard it also is. The poor Vicar who has found himself in the spotlight is attempting only to ensure that his churchyard remains also a place of comfort to his parishioners as he tries to blame their needs with the immediate needs of a grieving family.
In the words of the late Canon Routledge, a distinguished lawyer who was Chancellor also of two dioceses. "inscriptions should be simple, reverent and appropriate".
They will outlast the parties concerned by many years to come.