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Care of Churches

Chancellor's Guidance on Churchyards & Memorials

Churchyard Memorials

The prime movers in relation to memorials in churchyards will be the relatives of the deceased, for whom the business of choosing how, after death, the body should be dealt with (by burial or cremation), selecting a place in which to bury the body or the ashes, and in due course deciding what headstone to put up and what it should say, can be a source of anxiety and distress, exacerbating the problem of coming to terms with the death of a loved one.

Funeral directors and stonemasons (generally referred to in this Guidance as "funeral directors") in practice play a leading role in the introduction of new memorials into churchyards, and it is their responsibility to assist both incumbents and the bereaved to achieve the most appropriate memorial in all the circumstances - so that the whole process plays a part in coming to terms with bereavement, rather than simply posing a further bureaucratic burden.

The Headstone

Many of the churches in the Diocese do not have churchyards in which burials can take place. But there are a number where space still exists for new burials; and most of these are places full of character. Three elementary principles are that:

  • A memorial should respect its surroundings.
  • A memorial should not impose an unreasonable burden on future generations.
  • The inscription should be the most appropriate in all the circumstances.

(1) design:

A memorial should be in harmony with those round it, and with the churchyard as a whole; and the appearance of the churchyard should harmonise with that of the surrounding area. This does not mean that there has to be strict uniformity: there is little virtue in being bland and dull. But a memorial should not stick out, and the design cannot be left entirely to the individual choice of the bereaved. The churchyard will last for many years to come; and its character depends on that of all the memorials within it. There is a distinction between private grief and public remembrance. No single memorial can be allowed to spoil that general appearance, nor can the amount of private grief currently felt determine in any absolute way the form and content of what is to constitute a public memorial.

In practice, this means that the choice of stone for a memorial, and its size, thickness, shape, and general design, should only be finalised after looking carefully at the churchyard as a whole, and in particular at the part of it containing the grave under consideration. Memorials that are much darker, lighter, taller, or smaller than those nearby, or which are of a completely different stone, are unlikely to fit in harmoniously. The same applies to those which are in the form of a book, or an angel, or some other sculpture - unless there are many others of a similar character in the immediate vicinity. Memorials in the shape of teddy-bears or motorcars should be avoided.

Stones used in local buildings, or stones closely similar to them in colour and texture, are usually more appropriate; whereas black stones, and most marbles and granites, and stones with a highly polished surface, are less likely to be suitable. Memorials of synthetic stone or plastic are almost never likely to be. The choice of lettering also needs to be made in the light of what has been used nearby - in some churchyards, for example gold lettering may be appropriate, but in most it will not; and plastic lettering will always be unsuitable. Photographs or portraits of the deceased will almost always be inappropriate, as they would be totally out of character with existing churchyards.

(2) maintenance:

Churchyards have to be maintained by the parish for centuries to come. Memorials should be designed to allow for continuing maintenance to be as simple as possible. Generally, therefore, graves should not have kerbed surrounds, with or without railings or chains, as these impede the cutting of the surrounding grass.

The placing of cut flowers is a traditional way of showing affection or respect for the deceased; but dead flowers are unsightly and disrespectful. Those placing the flowers should remove them, and should not be upset if those responsible for the churchyard remove dead flowers as and when they observe them. The placing of flowers in free-standing vases or jars (even if partially buried) is generally unattractive, and a better solution is to choose a headstone with integral provision for a small vase for flowers; this enables them to be kept in water, and thus to last for longer. Experience suggests that provision of two or more integral vases is excessive. Normally it will be unobjectionable to plant a few spring bulbs on the grave, in front of the headstone, but more elaborate planting schemes are generally to be discouraged. The placing of artificial flowers is inappropriate.

At least six months should be allowed to elapse following the most recent burial in a grave before a headstone is erected, so allow the grave to settle. The ground should be levelled before a headstone is erected, and if this is not done, those responsible for the churchyard may undertake levelling when twelve months have elapsed since the latest burial in it.

(3) inscriptions:

Often the most difficult decision is what to put on the headstone. It is important not to rush decisions: what seems suitable just after the funeral may seem less so after a little time has passed. Wording can properly be individual, to reflect the personality and career of the deceased, and in particular to express the precious and personal qualities that made the deceased a unique and loved person, and to strike a chord of remembrance and reflection (and sometimes challenge) to the passer-by and stranger. But it also ought to be respectful, not only of the deceased, but also of other memorials and the feelings of all who may read it. A well-chosen inscription can give comfort in the present and provide interest (to others) in the future.

The memorial should commemorate, accurately, the existence of the person who has died, by recording his or her full name, or at least the surname and first name by which he or she was generally known (for example, "Thomas Joseph Smith" or "Thomas Smith"). It is perfectly appropriate to include as well any term of affection or widely-used nickname, perhaps in brackets (for example, "Thomas (Buster) Smith"). Generally terms such as "dad", "mummy" or "nan" are best avoided, but this is not an absolute rule. The memorial should also record the date of death and, wherever possible, either the date of birth or the age at death.

A name on its own says little; and misses the opportunity to say something publicly about the person who has died. There is much to be said for trying to express the precious and powerful qualities that made a person unique and loved. The inscription may record what he or she did ("district nurse" or "local councillor" or "craftsman") or simply some feature of the deceased's character ("much-loved husband, father and grand-father"). Some may wish to add a scriptural text, or an extract from a poem, or some other suitable words, consistent with Christian theology and inspired by reflection on the life of the departed. Any inscription should be short and to the point; and should avoid the trite, the home-spun, or the overly sentimental. The vocative case should be avoided (for example, "he was much loved" is preferable to "you were much loved").

Carved artwork may be included - either traditional Christian symbols (such as the Cross, though use of more than a single cross is to be avoided, since that reduces the Cross to mere decoration), or other decorative items (such as flowers), or, where appropriate, some other device reflecting the life of the person who has died - an example might be a book in the case of an author, or a palette in the case of an artist, though regalia relating to a particular football club are unlikely to be appropriate save in the case of a particularly close association. Sometimes in the case of a child a much-loved toy might be included. As a general rule, decoration should be kept simple and a minimal approach adopted.

(4) advice:

Careful study of other gravestones and epitaphs will often assist in choosing something appropriate. Incumbents will usually be willing to comment in advance on particular proposals, and to make suggestions. Early consultation is strongly recommended in order to minimise later problems.

Local funeral directors will be able to help with ideas for memorials, and give estimates as to costs. They will usually have a range of standard memorials, and will probably be able to indicate where an example of any particular pattern can be seen locally. An individually commissioned memorial will almost certainly cost more, but may be a more fitting tribute to the deceased (and thus more satisfying to the bereaved), and will almost always be preferable aesthetically.

A current list of addresses of approved funeral directors regularly operating in this diocese may be obtained from the Secretary of the Diocesan Advisory Committee, Trinity House, 4 Chapel Court, Borough High Street, London SE1 1HW (tel. 020 7939 9400). Alternatively, a list of other stonemasons who may be suitable for particular requirements may be obtained from Memorials by Artists, Snape Priory, Saxmundham, Suffolk, IP17 1SA (tel. 01728 688934) www.memorialsbyartists.co.uk.

(5) timing:

The process of choosing design and wording should not be rushed. Incumbents will usually not entertain any application for six months after the burial. It is essential that no headstone should be commissioned until any necessary formal approvals have been given - the fact that a memorial has already been commissioned and paid for is not a reason for granting approval.

Method of application for approval

Approval should be sought by filling the appropriate form (including dimensions, design, materials, inscriptions etc.), and giving or sending it to the incumbent - or the funeral director may do this. The form must be signed by both the applicant and the funeral director, and accompanied by the appropriate fee.

If the proposed memorial conforms with the relevant Regulations (see below), it will normally be approved without further ado. Occasionally it may be necessary for others to be consulted: for example, where a memorial is in some way out of the ordinary. This does not necessarily mean that it will not be approved (though some applications are refused), but the approval process may take a little longer.

Once a particular design has been approved, it must not be altered without further approval. A new application form should accompany any revised proposal, though normally a second fee will not be required.

This procedure also applies where an alteration is to be made to an existing memorial (for example, to add a further inscription following a second burial).

Methods of approval

There are three ways in which a memorial may be approved:

  • by the incumbent, if the memorial complies with the Churchyard Regulations in force for the churchyard concerned.
  • by the incumbent, where there are no Churchyard Regulations in force, but the memorial complies with the Diocesan Churchyard Regulations.
  • by the Chancellor - usually following consultation with the Diocesan Advisory Committee, and if necessary after an oral hearing.

Where approval is the responsibility of the incumbent, the authority cannot be delegated, whether to assistant priests, curates, other clergy, churchwardens or Parochial Church Councils. Where there is a vacancy, or where the incumbent is for some good reason unable to consider the matter, the Archdeacon may act on the incumbent's behalf.

(1) Churchyard Regulations

The most satisfactory approach is for each incumbent, who has responsibility for a churchyard with space for burials to prepare, in consultation with his or her Parochial Church Council, Churchyard Regulations for the churchyard(s) in question, indicating which types of memorial would normally be suitable. Such Regulations then need to be considered by the Archdeacon and the Diocesan Advisory Committee, prior to approval by the Chancellor - subject to any modifications that may seem desirable. They will then form the basis on which in future the incumbent may approve any new memorial to be introduced into the churchyard concerned.

Churchyard Regulations may in some cases be more permissive than the general Diocesan Churchyard Regulations (see below), in other less so. Where, for example, a churchyard contains nothing but memorials of a very traditional character, almost all made from a particular type of sandstone, then the Churchyard Regulations are likely to provide that approval will only be for that pattern and that stone. Where, on the other hand, a churchyard contains a mixture of different materials and designs, more latitude can be allowed in approving new ones.

Churchyard Regulations should be prepared in the same format as the Diocesan Churchyard Regulations and following the same general order, but substituting different specifications as required.

It will be necessary for funeral directors to check from time to time as to whether Regulations have been prepared for the churchyards where they carry out work. This is best done by contacting the incumbent concerned, or the Secretary of the Diocesan Advisory Committee.

(2) Diocesan Churchyard Regulations

The second approach, which is the method used in the past, is for general Regulations to be issued by the Chancellor, following consultation with the DAC, indicating what categories of memorial are normally suitable throughout the Diocese. Where there are no Churchyard Regulations in force, the Diocesan Churchyard Regulations will be the basis on which an incumbent may approve any new memorial to be introduced into a churchyard in his or her care.
The new Diocesan Churchyard Regulations, contained as an Appendix to this Guidance, include a number of variations from those included in the Revised Directive issued by my predecessor in February 1994. The Chancellor will welcome suggestions from any source as to ways in which the Diocesan Churchyard Regulations may be improved.

If a funeral director feels that the Diocesan Churchyard Regulations do not enable the introduction of a particular type of memorial that is often requested and which seems perfectly acceptable in the particular churchyard concerned - although possibly not elsewhere - the solution is of course to encourage the incumbent to prepare Churchyard Regulations.

(3) Approval by faculty

The third approach will only be necessary comparatively rarely. It would apply where, for example, a proposed memorial is of an unusual character, and thus worthy of more careful consideration, but not intrinsically undesirable - it may indeed be an exciting new design, worthy of enthusiastic support. Many of the more interesting monuments from the past would probably not accord with the Diocesan Churchyard Regulations. It might also apply where for some reason a proposal would be locally sensitive or controversial - in which case the incumbent will submit to the Chancellor a note explaining why this is so. Occasionally the Chancellor may, having consulted the Diocesan Advisory Committee, approve by Faculty a proposed memorial which is opposed by the Incumbent or by the Parochial Church Council for the churchyard in question, but there must be no expectation that this will be a regular occurrence.

Consideration of a proposal

An incumbent is able to approve any proposed memorial if it complies with the Churchyard Regulations (if any) that are currently in force for the particular churchyard concerned, or in other cases if it complies with the Diocesan Churchyard Regulations. He or she may also approve the alteration of any existing lawfully erected memorial to incorporate the details of a second, or further, burial or burials in the same grave.

The formal instrument of authorisation to incumbents appears as an Annex to this Guidance. It enables the Chancellor to withdraw the authorisation at any time, in relation to a particular churchyard or part of a churchyard, or in relation to particular categories of memorials; but this will only happen rarely.

An incumbent is not bound to approve a proposal merely because it complies with the relevant Regulations, and in any case (whether or not it so complies) is free to consult others if he or she wishes, before deciding on any particular application. An incumbent must not approve a proposed memorial if he or she considers:

  • that it does not comply with the relevant Guidelines.
  • that it is likely to be controversial for some reason
  • that it is in any way inappropriate.

If the incumbent, though unable himself or herself to approve the proposed memorial, nevertheless supports the proposal in principle, he or she will forward it to the Diocesan Registrar together with a letter of support - and let the applicant (and the funeral director) know that this has happened, and why. The Registrar will then arrange for the proposal to be advertised and referred to the Diocesan Advisory Committee, and will forward it to the Chancellor for his consideration. No further fee is payable, unless an oral hearing is considered necessary by the Chancellor.

If an incumbent is unable to support a proposal for any reason, he or she will let the applicant know as soon as possible, together with a brief and clear statement of the reason why. That will normally be in the form of a personal letter, as the applicant will understandably be upset in such a situation. The letter should also explain to the applicant that he or she is at liberty to apply for a faculty; and should provide the name and address of the Registrar, from whom the necessary application form can be obtained; a copy of the latter should be sent to the Registrar. A further fee will be necessary for a faculty application in such a case; but the fee paid with the initial application to the incumbent will be returned in any event.

Unauthorised memorials

Where a memorial is erected without being approved either by the incumbent or the Chancellor (or with the approval of the incumbent in a case which falls outside the relevant Regulations), the Chancellor is able to order it to be removed - at the expense of whoever erected it (which may well mean, in practice, the funeral director or stonemason). This applies also where approval is given for a particular memorial, but a different one is erected without further approval.

Where a memorial is erected without approval or (more likely) is erected after approval has been given for a somewhat different memorial, the incumbent should first consider whether approval would have been given - in accordance with the principles in the relevant Regulations - for the memorial that has in fact been erected, if it had been sought in advance. If it would have been, or if the memorial is only very marginally unacceptable, approval should be given to retain the stone. If it is unacceptable as it stands, but can be altered to make it acceptable, that should be done and approval given for the revised version. In either case, incumbents should give the name of the funeral director or stonemason concerned to the Archdeacon.

Where a memorial is erected which cannot be approved by the incumbent in the light of the principles in the relevant Regulations, and cannot be altered to make it accord with those principles, the Registrar will be notified, in order that he can start the necessary procedure either for a faculty to be sought (where the incumbent considers that the memorial is generally acceptable, albeit non-conforming), or to bring about its removal; and again the Archdeacon should be informed by the incumbent.

Future review

The Archdeacons will monitor the way in which these arrangements work in practice. If funeral directors, stonemasons or individuals have any comments, favourable or otherwise, they should communicate them to the relevant Archdeacon (or to the Registrar), in order that they may be taken into account when the matter next comes up for review.