Newcastle Consistory Court: McClean Ch, August 2000
The widow and children of a parishioner petitioned for the erection of a headstone. The proposed inscription included the words 'Forever in our hearts'. Permission for this had been refused by the late vicar, the sequestrators, the churchwardens and the rural dean. The chancellor identified two main, not wholly separable, issues - one 'of principle' as to the appropriateness of the phrase (phrases similar to the offending one were found in other churchyards in the diocese); and one of 'consistency' (in that the petition challenged a well settled parish policy). Since 1966 the church council had adopted a set of Churchyard Rules based on The Churchyards Handbook first published in 1962. The late vicar had adopted a consistent and unchanging policy as to the language of inscriptions. In relation to the current petition he had formed the view that the words were objectionable since the Rules recommended that inscriptions should record details of the deceased rather than the personal feelings of the bereaved, and that the words were not 'actually true' of those who grieved. The churchwardens objected on the basis that the unchanging policy for 25 years had been to refuse applications made in identical terms, one very recently to the present application. They were concerned that there should be no appearance of arbitrariness or bias. They were further concerned that granting the petition would make future administration of the churchyard even more difficult. The chancellor, in investigating the parish Rules for consistency identified one particular anomaly where there had clearly been a change in policy to take account of changes in public taste. He noted that the diocesan guidelines were silent in relation to the content of inscriptions. The Churchyards Handbook relied on in drafting the parish Rules had been through three editions, the most recent in 1988. The current edition offered advice which was directly contrary to the parish Rules. He concluded the documents relied on did not provide a secure basis for the parish policy. In turning to the change in policy and the effect on the running of the churchyard, the chancellor considered Re Holy Trinity Churchyard, Freckleton  1 WLR 1588. Accepting that the decision was not binding he noted that the policy identified in Freckleton was only a few years old and was that of a recent incumbent. The chancellor was persuaded by the arguments in a letter from the widow petitioner, that identified her own feelings of grief and quoted phrases used in memorials that had the same meaning although expressed in different terms (described by the chancellor as differences of 'taste rather than essential meaning'). In relation to the concern expressed by the churchwardens, the chancellor clarified that the Rules of the parish were subject to his decision, particular or general. He emphasised that decisions taken on previous applications were properly and conscientiously taken, and it was the consideration of the issue by this court that had precipitated the change. He reaffirmed the rule that a churchyard is governed by different considerations from those applying in a municipal cemetery and concluded that wording that was seemly and consonant with Christian faith would be allowed on memorials, and that those factors did not require a ban on expressions of grief.
(2001) 6 Ecc LJ 86