Why my mother may never rest in peace

Novelist Elisa Segrave's mother is now in the latter stages of Alzheimer's disease. But her life has one final tragedy in store...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MY MOTHER has always taken a great interest in graves. She has been a churchgoer all her life, and has always taken care of the family plots, driving over regularly to see that the headstones were cleaned. She gave donations. She even took photographs of my father's grave a few hours after his burial; although my grandmother and I thought this a bit odd.

She is now in the latter stages of Alzheimer's, but when she was compos mentis, my mother cared very much about where she would be buried. She particularly wanted to be near her eldest son, my brother, who was drowned aged five, alongside her younger son, her husband, her brother, her aunt, her grandfather and her great-grandfather. Her father was killed in Flanders in 1915, but he does have a plaque at the back of the church.

During a visit I made in December last year, I had difficulty finding my little brother's grave. I wrote to the Rector, whom I had never met, to ask whether there was a map, since the churchyard is quite large and my relations' plots are scattered. I added that I hoped that my mother could be buried there.

My mother, it turns out, may not.

I received a letter from the Rector saying that it would not be possible if my mother had `lived out of the parish for some considerable time' (she had left the area when she married my father in 1948). The only possible way, I was told, would be if my father's grave was double and she could fit in with him. He suggested that I find out which funeral directors had been involved with my father's burial and ask them this question.

I was only 24 when my father died. I tried, with the help of Pat, who looks after my mother, to find out who the funeral directors were, but we failed.

I was invited to send the Rector pounds 25 to stick a rod into my father's grave, to ascertain if it was double. Due to the unevenness of the ground, the result was inconclusive. The Rector pointed out, in his next letter, that there was little space on my father's headstone for a further inscription, "which often indicates that the grave is a single one".

A further option, which he thought should not be put into action until my mother actually died, was for my father's plot to be carefully dug. "If evidence is found of the existence of the grave of Commander Segrave at a depth of less than four feet approximately then it would be necessary to close the grave again and to make alternative arrangements for the second burial."

He enclosed a booklet of church rules, which had a long section on what type of headstones and inscriptions were allowed. I noted that "headstones in the shape of a heart or a book are not permitted".

On that day in December 1998, I had visited the grave of my second brother, who had died of an overdose aged 24. A lady was placing a vase of red carnations on the grave next to his. I plucked up courage to ask her how to clean the headstone. She thought you could get some sort of special cleaner in a hardware shop. A couple of Christmases ago, she said, she was about to go to Canada for several weeks. She'd asked the Rector if she could put fake flowers on the grave of "my Linda" as she wouldn't be able to replace the real flowers during that time. He said it wasn't allowed.

I had assumed that Linda was her sister, but when I looked more closely at the inscription I realised with a shock that she was her daughter. Linda had died in 1978, only a few months after my brother and, like my brother, she was born in 1953. After I left my brother's grave I felt absurdly pleased that he was lying next to a young woman of his own age.

Meanwhile, the saga of my mother's future burial continued. Pat and I were not keen to wait till she died for my father's grave to be dug. Were we supposed to be put her body on ice while we waited for the church's weighty deliberations to bear fruit? The Rector said that I should write to the Archdeacon. I could draft a letter, which he would approve, seeking further permission to investigate my father's grave, to see if it was "double-dug". (I found myself thinking of the Noel Coward song about "double damask dinner napkins".) Pat looked up in an old secretary's handbook to see how one should formally write to an archdeacon. It was "Venerable Sir". In the end I put "Dear Archdeacon".

The Rector approved my letter. I had referred to my mother's tragic life, mentioning the early deaths of her father, little brother (when she was three) and two sons. He added a couple of sentences, referring to himself as "the incumbent", a word I had not heard before. It was now early July. He warned that it might take "a month or so" for the Archdeacon's reply. Two months later, he said that my request had been passed on from the Archdeacon to the Chancellor of the Diocese.

Finally, on 6 October, we heard from the Diocesan Registrar: "If the relatives of Mrs Segrave do not want to defer the matter until the death of Mrs Segrave then they must Petition for a Faculty for authority to open the soil of the churchyard in order to investigate whether there is sufficient depth of soil in the grave of the late Commander Segrave to enable a second burial to be properly made." The letter from the Rector explained that this would cost "in the region of pounds 130".

He subsequently warned us that obtaining a "faculty" could be a very long process. A committee would come and look at the grave. Before he arrived at his parish, "things were done in the churchyard which weren't allowed". We had the impression that he meant he now had to be extra careful to observe church rules. He had had to wait 18 months for a "faculty", just to repaint the inside of the church in its existing colours.

I have now decided to cremate my mother. it was not what any of us wanted, but at least she will then be allowed to have a tablet laid on my father's grave - but only "cremation size": 18 by 12 inches.

Recently, I was put in touch with Harriet Frazer of Memorials by Artists, which helps people with these sorts of problems and gets individual headstones made. She founded the campaign 11 years ago following the difficulties her family had over the memorial to her stepdaughter (they weren't allowed to have four lines from one of her poems carved on the headstone).

She offered to take up my case. "I have a file called Absurd Faculties," she said. "The diocese we are dealing with at the moment says in its rules: `the headstone is to have no decorative motif other than: vertical lines, a small cross, a dove or a small flower.'" She has been battling on behalf of a lady who wants four daffodils on her husband's memorial instead of the `one flower' stated in the Diocesan churchyard rules. "We have to apply for a faculty. Isn't it mad?"

Memorials by Artists, Snape Priory, Snape, Saxmundham, Suffolk, IP17 ISA. Tel: 01728 688 934