Notes on...

Who decides what’s allowed on a gravestone?

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

A parishioner in West Yorkshire has been allowed to put an inscription in Chinese on a relative’s gravestone. ‘There is no general prohibition on the inclusion in inscriptions on headstones of words or phrases in a language other than English,’ said Judge Stephen Eyre, the Chancellor of the Diocese of Coventry, sitting in a consistory court.

If that is so, why was a family of Irish background forbidden by a consistory court in June from putting an Irish inscription on the gravestone in a Nuneaton churchyard of Margaret Keane, who had died aged 73? The inscription would have said: ‘In ár gcroíthe go deo.’ Perhaps not many people in Nuneaton would have known it meant ‘In our hearts for ever’.

In that case, the judge in the ecclesiastical court ruled: ‘There is a sad risk that the phrase would be regarded as some form of slogan, or that its inclusion without translation would, of itself, be seen as a political statement.’

These judgments were being made in a parallel judicial universe unfamiliar to most of us, as if in a Sharia court. But consistory courts of the Church of England are not a private affair, for the canon law of the established church forms part of the law of the land. That is why, for example, Anglican churches are the only places where it is illegal to conduct same-sex marriages. That would go against Canon B30, specifying a union of ‘one man with one woman’.

Similarly the law is stacked against you if you want to put up a memorial that church authorities dislike. First, catch your grave — only parishioners or those who die in the parish have a right to be buried in the churchyard. Any other corpse is admitted at the discretion of the incumbent.

Nor is there a right to a memorial of any kind. The diocese decides the churchyard regulations on the size and material of the stone (nothing shiny, say some; no photographic representation of the loved one say others). Toys and windmills are strictly forbidden in some dioceses. Anything outside the regulations can be permitted only if a successful application is made for a faculty — permission from an ecclesiastical court.

When the Irish inscription was banned, the applicants had the right of appeal to the highest court in the Province of Canterbury. This is the Court of Arches, an institution far beyond Gilbert and Sullivan. Its ancient home is the church that qualifies you to be a Cockney if you are born within the sound of its bells: St Mary-le-Bow, or in Latin Sancta Maria de Arcubus: the Arches.

Before 1865, the Court of Arches often sat near St Paul’s in an old building called Doctors’ Commons. Dickens relished its absurdity, and made fun of the fat, slovenly, red-robed, thick-spoken counsels who gabbled through the cases. I wish he’d loved its oddities more. The building was sold off, its only trace a plaque in Queen Victoria Street: ‘Site of Doctors’ Commons demolished 1867’.

From the rubble, the Court of Arches crept back to St Mary-le-Bow. If a consistory court in southern England or the Midlands rejects your grave plan for a polished granite effigy of Minnie Mouse amid pink stone chippings, the Court of Arches can make the last judgment.

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