Family could exhume body in row over gravestones: Church of England court upholds priests's ban on use of 'dad' and 'grandad' on former bank manager's headstone

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The Independent Online
THE FAMILY of an 83-year-old former bank manager is considering exhuming his body from a churchyard after a decision by a Church of England court to back a priest's ban on the words 'dad' and 'grandad' on gravestones.

The rare consistory court decision ended a two-year battle by Charles Brown and his wife Wendy to refer in epitaph to Charles's father Frederick as he had been referred to in life.

The Rev Stephen Brian had insisted that Mr Brown's headstone in Holy Trinity Church, Freckle ton, Lancashire, bear the more formal 'father' and 'grandfather'. Yesterday Judge John Bullimore, Chancellor of the Blackburn diocese, backed the vicar's decision in a 12-page judgment. A church spokesman said the decision did not affect other dioceses.

The ruling has surprised those who sympathise with the Browns' desire to choose their terms for their loved one but only the 'extreme pettiness' of this particular restriction has surprised those in the burial business.

Priests, funeral directors and masons say that the business of epitaphs is a minefield. While most municipal cemeteries and some churchyards adopt a liberal approach as long as epitaphs do not cause offence, the restrictions in many churchyards bring a stream of complaints.

Simon Truelove, of the National Association of Funeral Directors, is highly critical of a system that upsets so many bereaved families and allows vicars 'to be God in their own churchyards'.

'This ruling is going a bit far even for the Church of England. But basically people are not allowed anything out of the ordinary on their stones. It is really quite ridiculous. People are always asking us for things we know will not be allowed. The bereaved should surely be allowed a little more leeway. It makes you wonder just who a gravestone is for.'

In the Churchyards Handbook, which provides guidance for priests, the gravestone is more the property of posterity than the deceased's family. The book, which apparently leaves room for priestly interpretation, does not approve of the inscription 'dearly loved wife' and declares war on 'the cliche and the banal'. The Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Rev William Westwood, defended the book and the backing for the ban as 'wise'.

'The long-term view is that we are offering something to the future,' he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One. He pointed to Highgate Cemetery, in north London, resting place of Karl Marx, as a terrible example of individualism given full rein. He suggested the words 'mum', 'dad', 'nan' and 'grandad' were part of a trend which would destroy the peace of English churchyards.

But Teresa Quinn, executive officer of the National Association of Monumental Masons, said conformity was the real threat to a rich churchyard history. 'If the book has posterity in mind it is making sure what we leave behind is boring. People come from all over to Highgate just because it is diverse and historically different.

'The handbook first states that a wise priest will be lenient on epitaphs because it helps the bereaved. Then suddenly it lumps 'Mum, dad and Ginger' together and argues that the names are more fitted to pet than human cemeteries. There may be reason in avoiding pet names like Squiggy, but this book adopts an extreme opposite position.

'The real tragedy is that families do not usually find out about these restrictions until after their relative is buried.' Ms Quinn said the regulations governing deceased children were no softer. 'Parents often want something special like a teddy or an angel and then they find the children's memorial area is very small and that this won't be allowed. The monumental mason never sees them until the funeral is over then he has to break the news.'

Mr Truelove said the restrictions were preventing gravestones being a true reflection of our times. In his local churchyard a 16th-century stone tells the story of how a woman was beaten to death trying to separate fighting neighbours. 'Everything is too bland for that sort of stone now.'

But yesterday's ruling insisted familiar terms were not necessary to express affection. Using 'father' and 'grandfather' did not indicate cool or unaffectionate feelings. But the Browns are determined to keep up their fight and are considering an appeal.

'He was dad and grandad,' said Wendy Brown. 'He never liked being called anything else. Everyone in the graveyard is an individual; and their gravestones should reflect that. They should not be carbon copies of every stone around them.'

(Photographs omitted)