Thou shalt not honour thy Mam

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The Independent Online
THE UNDISTINGUISHED brick church of Freckleton in Lancashire is now not only locked but alarmed. Those wishing for a peaceful place for spiritual reflection are relegated to the graveyard - and little peace will they find there.

This morning distressed and angry relatives of those who lie in this churchyard are due to appear at a consistory court of the Church of England. All they want is to put on the tombstones of those they love the names they called them in life: 'Mum', 'Mam', 'Dad', 'Nan', 'Grandma', 'Grannie'.

Millions of times a day these simple words are spoken in homes across this country, expressing love and closeness, family bonds, expressing - you might think - true Christian values.

This is not an issue confined to Freckleton, but a national one. The vicar of Freckleton, one Stephen Brian, cites Church of England guidelines on inscriptions and memorials, The Churchyards Handbook, in defence of the way he has acted towards recently bereaved members of his congregation. 'An epitaph is a public document, and not a cosy one at that,' intones this document. 'Nicknames or pet-names ('Mum', 'Dad', Ginger') inscribed in stone, would carry overtones of the dog cemetry unsuitable for the resting place of Christian men and women.'

You may well wonder how suitable the mingled overtones of pompousness, prattishness and insult in this last sentence are for Christian men and women. But this, dear reader, is the official word on the subject.

Sylvia Kay, of Freckleton, has experienced its effects. Her husband, Stan, died suddenly in 1992. Their eldest son, Gary, ordered the small grey stone prescribed for those who have been cremated, and an inscription: 'To the loving memory of a dearly loved husband and dad.' 'A few days later,' she says, 'the vicar called up. He said 'I'm sorry, but I want 'Dad' taken off and 'father' putting down.' I was in a right state. We had the wording changed.

'It's really affected us. I've three children. Gary refused to get married there. Joanne won't go into the churchyard. She says, 'It's not my Dad.' '

And then there is John Treacher. Mr Treacher is 75. He lives on a pension in a mobile home in Freckleton. After 43 years of marriage his wife, Doris, died last year. He took pounds 569 from their small savings to buy a tombstone fit for her.

'I wanted 'Loving Memories of Doris, Loved Wife of John.' The stonemason did me a little rose and a picture of Jesus with the sheep,' says Mr Treacher.

'He put a bit of colour on, the mason. He said, you can rub that off if vicar doesn't wear it. Well, he went up the wall. He said if I didn't take it away he'd get a contractor to do it. I've been under that much stress over it, my doctor told me not to go to church, and five weeks past I was in a diabetic coma.

'They say there's regulations on colour and I should have read them, but they were hanging in ladies' toilet.' Mr Treacher, however, is not giving in. He is due to give evidence to the consistory court today. After six years fighting Hitler as a machine-gunner to protect the right to freedom and free speech, he says he sees no reason to surrender them in Freckleton.

'There's lots of us fighting,' he says. 'My Doris is in her grave, but her grave's unsettled, really. There's one lady says if we don't win, the coffin of her loved one's coming out of ground. And I don't understand why 'Mam' and 'Dad' are wrong. I don't think the Lord Jesus Christ used big words to us, did he?'

These disputes rarely reach a consistory court. But they are not unusual elsewhere. One woman told me recently that in order to get a stone erected to her father in a churchyard where the rules forbade a stone with cremated remains, they had to resort to bribing their Essex vicar. The resulting stone bears no dates, lest the diocesan authorities notice the breach.

The Church's guidelines regulating inscriptions, height and colour of tombstones claim that they are to protect tomorrow's history. It is a moot point. Across the country that charming, higgledy-piggledy mix of doves, crosses, angels and obelisks clustering round old churches gives way, in the modern parts, to rank after rank of uniform stones, a witness not to the individuality of the human remains there buried, but the blankness of the bureaucratic mind.

Dr Julie Rugg, of York University, is an historian who specialised in the study of graveyards. She says thousands of old gravestones with their priceless record have been removed by local authorities and churches simply to make the grass easier to cut.

'I'd like to see greater choice,' she says. 'So long as inscriptions don't contravene obscenity and blasphemy laws, why make regulations about them at all?'

(Photograph omitted)