Leading Article: The case for gravitas in the graveyard

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IN LAPIDARY inscriptions a man is not upon oath, said Dr Johnson. But to the vicar of Holy Trinity church at Freckleton, Lancashire, titular veracity is all. Invoking The Churchyards Handbook, he is in dispute with those parishioners who wish the headstones of their relatives to be inscribed with heart-warming terms 'Dad', 'Grandpa' and the like.

The vicar deems the deceased to be worthy of their worldly titles and dignities, not familiarities. The bereaved think he is unfeeling. People concerned for the decline of the English churchyard, with its endearing mixture of the solemn and the eccentric, will await with interest today's decision of a consistory court upon the argument.

The vicar may be going to extremes, but there is a decent argument for the preservation of a certain gravitas in the graveyard. Ask the exasperated descendants of the fin de siecle bankers and brokers whose graffiti-daubed tombs abut the final resting place of Jim Morrison in the Parisian cemetery of Pere Lachaise. Or think of the dead from these isles who rest in Mediterranean cemeteries, amid effusions of pink marble adorned with alarmingly lifelike photographs of the deceased and lines of sentimental poetry. Such thoughts warn us against what Sheridan called 'a derangement of epitaphs'.

There is, of course, an honourable tradition that a man can choose his own funerary lines. Keats demanded on his deathbed that his headstone should record that 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water', while the learned Thomas Fuller composed his own, succinctly: 'Fuller's Earth.'

While there is no need to follow the example of Wahhabi Islam, whose followers, even the kings of Saudi Arabia, are interred beneath an unmarked cairn of desert stones, the court might reasonably find that the grave should remain a fine, private and solemn place.