Churchyards, Headstones and Burials
Memorials in churchyards, chancellor's regulations, churchyard safety, closing a churchyard, reserving a grave space
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Memorials in Churchyards:
- How do I proceed?
- What memorials are allowed?
- Are some things not allowed?
- The Incumbent’s Discretion
- Things specifically prohibited except by faculty
- Inspection and Recording
- Cost Implications
- Closed Churchyards
- Further Reading
Closing a Churchyard:
- Ministry of Justice
- Government Policy
Reservation of Grave Spaces
- The following details must be included in a petition
- The following documents must accompany a petition
The area around a church is a public space, and is often the legal burial ground for the parish. Much of the regulation of churchyards is under the faculty jurisdiction but there are some important additional matters, so they are set out here. Most of the time, if there are burials in the churchyard, whether or not it is around the church itself, the ground will have been consecrated. When additional land is added to churchyards, or consecrated areas are added to cemeteries, a ceremonial service of consecration takes place on the land, and the Bishop sets the land aside for sacred purposes, namely the burial of those who have died resident in the parish or in the parish at the time of their death. Other people may be buried there if permission is given and there is space available, but for the people of the parish or dying in the parish it is a right of burial as long as space remains.
As a general rule, the local vicar or rector owns the churchyard land, technically, and it is the responsibility of him and the PCC to regulate and maintain it, subject always to the authority of the Consistory Court in its faculty jurisdiction. The most common aspect of the churchyard which comes under that control is the placing of headstones and other monuments, which is a day-to-day matter, is:
The marking of the place of burial is extremely important; it not only gives due respect to the departed, but for many people is an important focus within the grieving process and beyond. Your parish priest will be able to assist you as you seek to do this as sensitively and appropriately as possible. This summary of the more detailed information is intended to give you some initial help as you plan a grave stone, or a memorial for the interment of cremated remains in a churchyard.
A churchyard is a place of Christian burial and as such it is right that we are sensitive to the tradition and nature of the churchyard, which is different in some respects from that of a local authority cemetery. Your parish priest can give permissions for memorials within certain constraints, but it may be that s/he has to ask permission elsewhere. If this does happen it does not mean that your request is unreasonable, just that s/he does not have the authority to give permission to a particular request.
In normal circumstances it is recommended that nothing is fixed over a grave or ashes for the first six months after the burial. This allows the ground to settle, and more importantly it allows you and the family time to give proper thought to what will be the most appropriate memorial.
It is most important that no agreements are made with a stone mason until you have spoken with the parish priest and obtained her/his permission.
The parish priest will give you a formal application form to complete when you know what you want to do; when this is complete and permission obtained you can with confidence approach a stone mason.
The parish priest may give permission for the following
‘Headstones’ not exceeding 150cm x 90cm
Crosses not exceeding 180cm high or 90cm wide
Flat stones, not exceeding 150cm long by 90 cm wide.
Plain open books up to 45 cm high and 75 cm wide
Fixed memorial vases up to 30cm x 20cm x 20cm
- Flat stones over cremated remains up to 30cm x 37cm
Inscriptions should be simple, dignified and reverent.
The formal application form gives further details about stone type (which should be natural and non-reflecting) and some more detailed guidance about wording.
For a number of reasons, many of them to do with maintenance and aesthetics, there are some things that the parish priest cannot her/himself give permission for:
- Kerbs, railings, fencing, chippings
- Heart-shaped stones
- Anything fixed or hanging to the monument
- Plastic or synthetic materials
- Any carving other than flora, fauna and small crosses
Some of these may be allowed, but the permission cannot be given by the parish priest; s/he has to pass the matter on to the person in the Diocese who has the statutory legal oversight of churchyards.
Your parish priest is very willing to help you and will happily give you advice, particularly for example about what kind of stone is best in the churchyard and about inscriptions that are simple, dignified and reverent.
For those who need the precise terms of the regulations, they are set out below.
Download a copy from the 'Resources' box on the left (under 'In this section').
Churchyards are legally owned by the incumbent of the church, during his or her (further references to he/him/his include she/her) term of office.
As with all other consecrated church property changes, including the installation of any form of fixed object on the land above a burial, may only be made with the permission of the chancellor, as judge of the court of the diocese, called the consistory court.
Every parishioner however, every person who dies in the parish and every person whose name is on the electoral roll of the church has the right to be buried or have his ashes interred in the churchyard, provided that it is still legally open for burials. Others may be buried in the churchyard if there is ample space and at the discretion of the incumbent.
Grave spaces may be reserved for future use but this always requires permission for the consistory court (a faculty), and a payment towards the upkeep of the churchyard.
In practice the chancellor delegates the normal regulation of the churchyard to the incumbent, who is allowed to authorise straightforward graves and memorials within the guidelines set out in this leaflet. This means that in such cases there is no need to obtain a faculty. For the purposes of this delegation incumbent includes priest-in-charge, and where a church is within a team the team rector or team vicar having responsibility for the church in question. If there is no incumbent the rural dean should exercise this function.
The maintenance of any object placed above a grave is the responsibility of those who installed it, and their heirs.
There has to be regulation over what is installed in a churchyard because churchyards are public places, very often of significant historical interest. It is important that there is nothing within them which conflicts with the surroundings, either in the materials or design used, or in the wording of the inscription.
It must not be thought however that designs or inscriptions which are outside the guidelines are automatically forbidden, although they would require a faculty. There is a long standing tradition in this country of excellent and innovative gravestone design, and the organisation “Memorials by Artists” can often give useful advice (the address is at the end of this section).
Unless there are exceptional circumstances nothing should be fixed over a grave or ashes for the first six months after the burial. This is to allow ideas to crystallise and the ground to settle, and at this time the mound will normally be levelled. After that time application should be made to the incumbent on the form provided by the Diocesan Office. The applicant must be told not to make any arrangements with a stonemason, funeral director or anyone else before permission has been granted.
The incumbent may, but is not obliged to, give his or her approval within the following guidelines:
“Headstones”, which includes those made of oak, not exceeding 150cm (5 ft) high nor 90 cm (3 ft) wide.
Crosses, whether simple or celtic and whether of stone or oak, not exceeding 180 cm (6 ft) high nor 90 cm (4 ft) wide.
Flat stones not exceeding 150 cm (5 ft) long nor 90 cm (3 ft) wide.
Plain open books (that is without wings, elaborate supports or other ornamentation) not exceeding 45 cm (1ft 6 inches) high nor 75cm (2ft 6 inches) wide.
Fixed memorial vases not exceeding 30cm by 20cm by 20 cm (1ft by 8 inches by 8 inches).
Flat stones over cremated remains not exceeding 30cm (1 ft) by 37 cm (1 ft 3 inches). For the avoidance of doubt it must be understood that no fixed vase or other object may be placed on stones over cremated remains.
Please note: Stones over ashes must be laid flush with the surrounding grass so that a mower may pass easily over them. In the case of a churchyard where there has been a tradition of stones which are not so laid the incumbent should apply, via the registry, to the chancellor for advice.
Any base must be sunk 5cm (2 inches) at least below the surrounding ground, so that a mower can pass over it. Any flower container must also be sunk in the same way.
A headstone or cross may stand on a stone base or plinth of the same stone as the headstone, provided that it is an integral part of the design and does not project more than 100mm (4”) beyond the headstone in any direction, except where a receptacle for flowers is provided, in which case this must be flush with the top of the base or plinth and may extend up to 150mm (6”) in front of the headstone. The base or plinth must be fixed on a foundation slab which is flush with the ground so that a mower may pass freely over it. The foundation slab must extend from 75mm (3”) to 150mm (6”) all around the base.
Stone should be natural and with a non-reflecting finish. The type and colour of the stone should be in keeping with what is commonly used locally, and in particular with that used for the church itself, if stone built. If granite is used it must not be polished above eggshell, and dark grey, black or any colour not in keeping with the local environment are prohibited.
Because a churchyard is a public place, and because gravestones will remain in place for many years, some degree of control has to be exercised over inscriptions. They should be simple, dignified and reverent. If a nickname is to be included it should appear after the given name and in brackets or inverted commas as follows: …….Robert (Bob) Smith. Requests for use of such names as “Mum” or “Dad” to be treated as being within the incumbent’s discretion (see below) and will be sympathetically considered. Messages addressed to the deceased person may not be allowed by the incumbent but the chancellor will give consideration to an extension of the discretion as seems appropriate to him in individual cases.
There should be no inscription on the arms of a cross.
A badge or insignia of the armed forces is allowed provided that the incumbent has a letter of authority from the branch of the forces in question.
Trademarks and company names are not allowed the on face of any stone, but the name of an individual craftsman may be incised on the reverse in letters no more than 13mm (½ inch) high.
The incumbent does not have authority to allow any of the following:
Kerbs, railings, fencing, chippings, statues or any stone in the shape of a heart.
Anything fixed to or hung upon any monument, including insignia, crosses, images, models, paintings or photographs.
Plastic and other synthetic materials.
Artificial flowers except remembrance poppies between 20th October and 20th December in any year.
Any carving other than flora, fauna and small crosses.
Any badge or insignia other than of the armed forces.
No agreement should be entered into with any stonemason or funeral director before either a faculty or the written authorisation of the incumbent has been obtained.
In the first instance an application to the incumbent should be made on the form provided by the Diocesan Office.
If the incumbent takes the view that what is asked for is outside his authority to allow, he should tell the person making the application to contact the registry with a view to applying for a faculty. Similarly, even if he considers the matter to be within his delegated discretion he is not obliged to grant permission but may require a faculty to be applied for if he thinks it appropriate.
Churches may make their own regulations for graveyards provided that they do not purport to give the incumbent greater authority than is set out in this leaflet. The regulations may however be more restrictive than set out here, such as in allowing certain types of memorial only in certain parts of the churchyard, or in allowing certain materials only. If it is desired to install something which comes outside local regulations it would be necessary to apply for a faculty, which might or might not be granted.
If the incumbent thinks that the matter requested is outside his discretion, but is acceptable and inoffensive he may, if he has a positive motion in favour from his PCC, approach the registry which will ask the chancellor if the request can be treated as being within his discretion. The chancellor in any individual case may agree to such a request, but may require the advice of the Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches (DAC) before coming to a decision.
In any case of difficulty or where a query arises please approach the Diocesan Registry, which is always ready to give advice.
These regulations are made by the Diocesan Chancellor with the approval of the DAC, and have been noted by the Diocesan Synod.
His Honour Judge Samuel Wiggs
Chancellor of the Diocese of Salisbury
Memorials by Artists, Snape Priory, Saxmundham, Suffolk, IP17 1SA
Tel: 01728 688934
It is the responsibility of clergy and Parochial Church Councils to take proper care to ensure the safety of all visitors to churchyards. This includes the safety of children who play in churchyards and may even include those there for the purpose of vandalism. Dangers include unstable monuments, trees from which dead boughs could fall, loose kerbstones and slippery paths. Even when a churchyard has been closed, the PCC has an Occupier’s Liability for the safety of visitors to, and those working in, the burial ground. The owner of a memorial (the purchaser or, following his death, the heirs of the deceased) has the legal responsibility for its maintenance, including its safety. The monumental mason has a duty of professional care to the purchaser for ensuring that the monument is stable and secure. However, the ultimate responsibility lies with the “occupier”, who is in the case of churchyards, the incumbent and PCC. It is as well to ensure that whatever is done or needed in the churchyard for purposes of safety is notified to the PCC’s insurers, and their advice considered (and usually followed). The following notes, put together in the light of advice from all the relevant experts, may assist in meeting the proper standards:
The church’s Inspecting Architect will check the condition of the churchyard during his quinquennial inspection, but in addition there should be further regular inspections (at sensible intervals depending on various factors) and recording of the condition of all monuments, trees and paths. These additional inspections do not need to be carried out by the architect. Priority should be given to any monuments over six feet high, especially those resting on plinths, and a structural engineer should check the safety of any monument over ten feet high. Inspections should be carried out by at least two people working together, for safety reasons. Before a full inspection of the churchyard is made, there should be publicity about what will be done and why.
Before beginning an inspection, a kit should be assembled, consisting of:
Camera (to record the condition of memorials)
Board which can be marked with the name of each memorial and the date of the inspection to be included in the photograph for identification purposes
Mobile telephone (in case of accidents)
Safety equipment and clothing if necessary
Forms on which to record the condition (good and bad) of stones, pens etc*
Warning tape and notices
Binoculars for inspecting the top of tall monuments
Metal stakes and strong tape
At the beginning of the inspection of each monument, a careful visual assessment should be made before it is touched. If necessary, use binoculars for the tops of tall monuments, and also inspect the soil around the base of the memorial to see that it is standing on firm ground.
There should never be an attempt to rock a stone, to discover whether or not it is stable. Very gentle pressure should be applied, with fingertips at first, gradually increasing in strength. The push test can be dangerous – it is wise to look to see which way a stone is likely to fall before touching. If a monument is found to be unstable, immediate action should be taken, and depending on the state of the monument, this action could taken one of three different forms:
Carefully laying the monument flat on the ground. It is a good idea to use bed of straw or other material on which to lower the stone to prevent damage to the stone and help to keep it clean. Laying the stone flat will, of course, prevent it from falling and hurting anyone, but it now becomes a trip hazard, necessitating a warning sign.
Driving in a special metal stake and binding the stone to the stake with strong tape (again, leave a warning/explanatory sign)
Fencing off the unsafe area and displaying warning notices.
You are advised not to use the words “danger” or “dangerous” on your notices, as having found something to be dangerous, you would be liable if you had taken no action to remove the danger. It is better to use such terms as “caution” and “warning”. Warning signs alone are not sufficient: fencing should be placed around unsafe memorials.
In order to draw attention to the risk of danger from unstable stones and flat stones which could be a trip hazard, brightly coloured plastic bags could be put over them.
If a stone is found to be leaning at an angle greater than 5° from the vertical, or to be cracked, the owner, if traceable, should be contacted and asked to have it repaired. If, after six months, no repair has been effected, then the PCC should have it repaired or otherwise made safe and pass the cost to the owner of the monument.
In every case where action is taken, a notice should be left on the grave explaining what has been done and why. It has been known for relatives to re-erect a stone which has been laid flat for safety purposes, thus leaving it in an even more dangerous condition!
Oddly enough, old headstones made of one solid slab of stone, even if found to be leaning at an acute angle, are usually very stable because of their monolith construction and the fact that one-third of the stone is buried in the ground. However, some quite recent “lawn type” memorials can be inherently unstable, because the dowels or cement connecting the slabs quickly corrode and disintegrate.
If kerbstones round a grave are found to be a hazard, it is possible to remove them, but is should be borne in mind that removal of the kerbs can itself make the memorial unsafe if they support other parts of it.
The PCC is also responsible for the safety of those working in the churchyard, and should ensure that grave-diggers and other workers employ safe working practices. While being dug, graves should be properly shored and timbered, and ladders should be provided. Petrol for mowers and other equipment used in the churchyard should be safely stored in accordance with instructions.
Every PCC should have public liability insurance, which would cover the cost of any claim against the PCC. However, the insurance company will wish to know that the PCC has taken sensible precautions to prevent such accidents.
Lack of funding is unfortunately not an excuse for not taking the appropriate action to make a churchyard as safe as possible.
The usual practice is for a one-off payment to be made to the PCC towards the cost of maintenance of the churchyard at the time of the reservation of a grave space or a burial. PCCs should give consideration to charging an annual or other recurring fee and using the fees to set up a trust fund specifically for the maintenance of the churchyard.
It might be possible to insist that the owner of a grave stone or other memorial has public liability insurance and a care and maintenance contract for the stone. If the PCC had a note of the owner’s insurance details and the owner could not be traced, then the PCC could make a direct claim on the owner’s insurance company.
Claims for compensation arising from accidents in churchyards have been known to be divided between the owner of a memorial (explained above), the monumental mason and the “occupier” (also explained above).However, the most likely scenario is that the claim is made against the occupier (ie, the PCC), especially in cases where the owner and the memorial mason have become untraceable over a number of years.
“The Churchyards Handbook” by Peter Burman FSA and The Very Revd Henry Stapleton FSA published by Church House Publishing, Church House, Great Smith Street, London, SW1P 3NZ. ISBN0 7151 75548. The present edition is the recently published fourth edition, price £10.95. Tel Church House Bookshop on 020 7898 1300 for further details or to order.
A suggested form for recording the condition of headstones is printed as an Appendix of “The Churchyards Handbook”, fourth edition.
In the case of a churchyard which has been formally closed by Order in Council and for the maintenance of which the local authority has taken over responsibility, the responsibility for safety is shared between the incumbent and PCC as “occupiers” and the local authority. It will be a matter for negotiation between the two bodies as to who carries out any testing of upright monuments and how it is paid for.
Because of the ongoing cost of maintaining a churchyard even when it is full and no further burials can take place, there are procedures for closing them by Order in Council and transferring the maintenance responsibility to the local authorities.
The process is not dealt with by the Registry, but by the Ministry of Justice. A PCC wishing to close a churchyard which has no further space for burials should approach the Ministry of Justice direct. Contact details are:
020 3334 2813
Justice Policy Group
4th Floor (4.37)
102 Petty France
The grounds on which a closing order may be made are that there is no proper room for new graves; that further burials would be contrary to decency; that the discontinuance of burials would prevent or mitigate nuisance; or that further burials would constitute a health risk. A wish to transfer responsibility for maintenance to the local authority is not an acceptable ground for seeking an Order.
The usual reason for wishing to close a churchyard is because there is no proper room for new graves, but this reason will not suffice if the church has already acquired other ground in which burials can still be made.
If and when an Order in Council closing the churchyard is obtained, a parochial church council may request the appropriate local authority, normally the Parish Council, to take over the maintenance of a closed churchyard, in accordance with Section 215 of the Local Government Act 1972. The Parish Council may, within three months, pass the responsibility and the cost of the maintenance of the closed churchyard to the District or other appropriate Council.
1. Under Section 215 of the Local Government Act 1972 a parochial church council is liable to maintain a closed churchyard by keeping it in decent order and its walls and fences in good repair. A Parochial Church Council (PCC) may serve a written request on the parish or community council, or if there is not one, the district Council, to take over the maintenance of the churchyard. Where the request is served on the parish council the council have the option of transferring the responsibility for maintenance to the district council provided that they resolve to do so and give written notice of their resolution to the district council and to the PCC within three months of service of the original request, then at the expiration of the three months the district council must take over maintenance.
2. In 1981 the General Synod asked Diocesan synods to advise PCCs with closed churchyards that local authorities should be given 12 months notice of any intention to serve 3 months statutory notice as laid down in Section 215.
3. The condition of a churchyard or the future arrangements for its maintenance are not factors that the Ministry of Justice takes into consideration when considering whether to apply to the Privy Council for a closure Order.
4. Enquiries about these notes may be made to the Coroners Unit.
Tel: 020 3334 6390.
Advice from the Church Commissioners and the Legal Office of General Synod
Until 1974 the policy for making Orders in Council to close churchyards was that they should only be made on the grounds that further burials would be a danger to public health as certified by the Medical Officer of Health. However, the Local Government Act 1972 repealed the reference to public health in Section 1 of the Burials Act 1853. The Department of the Environment had hoped to bring forward a Burials Bill to set out a wider set of grounds for closure but this had not been introduced by the time the 1972 Act took effect (nor was it subsequently).
The Department therefore decided to widen the grounds by administrative action (after consulting the Privy Council). By a letter dated 5 November 1974, which was circulated to local authority associations, the General Synod, the Churches Main Committee, the Commissioners and the Council for Places of Worship, the Department announced that from 1 January 1975 it would also put forward closure orders on grounds of
(a) the prevention or mitigation of nuisance
(b) no proper room for new graves
(c) further burials contrary to decency.
These grounds along with closure on public health grounds were repeated in Notes for Closing Church of England Churchyards BC3(R) prepared by the Department of the Environment in July 1977.
In 1981 the Association of District Councils raised concerns about the impact of Section 215 of the Local Government Act 1972 whereby, following a closure order, the PCC could require the local authority to take over maintenance responsibility for a churchyard on three months notice. The Association was concerned about the budgetary effect of taking on new commitments at such short notice. It did not wish to amend the legislation but asked for the Church to agree to give 12 months informal notice before invoking Section 215. This was agreed by the Synod Office and Derek Pattinson in a letter of 21 September 1981 asked Diocesan Synod Secretaries to inform Parochial Church Councils of the problem and request them to give 12 months informal notice of an intention to serve a formal three month notice under Section 215. This was reinforced in an opinion of the Legal Advisory Commission in October 1984.
Recently the DCA, which had taken over responsibility for closed churchyards (although it was subsequently transferred to the Ministry of Justice) refused to close some churchyards where there were burial spaces in other churchyards in the parish. They referred to an agreement made in 1974 between the Cof E, the local associations and the DoE, but were unable to supply a copy.
The 1974 letter referred to above was an administrative decision by the Department of the Environment which, although sent to various church bodies, was not an agreement to which they were parties. It made no reference to the closure of churchyards which were full in parishes with more than one churchyard.
The 1977 notes say that the Department of the Environment will no longer consider requests for the closure of part of a churchyard (except where part was already closed) but it would seem to be stretching that somewhat if the Ministry of Justice is now regarding separate churchyards in the same parish as "parts" of a single churchyard. Again there was no "agreement" with the Church other than that the Legal Office and the Churches Main Committee seem to have received a copy and made no comment on the Notes.
The only specific agreement by the Church was the 1981 agreement with the Local Authorities but that relates only to the informal 12 months notice period for transferring maintenance liability.
It is possible to reserve a particular grave space in a given churchyard. This must be done by faculty to ensure that it is legally binding. The danger with an informal reservation is that the grave may not be required for some years after it is reserved and the matter could easily be overlooked when there are changes in parish officers.
Because the reserving of a grave space involves the PCC in the expense and effort of maintaining the plot in good condition both before and after the burial, the Chancellor usually requires confirmation that a contribution is made to the PCC towards those costs before a faculty is granted, although the PCC can choose to waive that fee in certain circumstances.
Petition forms are available by email or post from the Diocesan Registry, and the contact details for that office are:
Tel: 01722 432390
Minster Chambers, 42/44 Castle Street, Salisbury, SP1 3TX.
The fee changes in January every year, so please contact the Registry for details. A cheque made payable to 'Batt Broadbent' should accompany the petition when it is sent to the Registry.
- Full name (including all forenames), address and age of each petitioner and if more than one petitioner, their relationship, e.g. husband and wife.
- Normally each person desiring to be buried in the plot asked for should be a petitioner. However, if that is not possible for some special reason, then his written consent to the petition or copy of any Power of Attorney, if applicable, should be attached to the petition.
- The area of space to be reserved, given in square feet. (For guidance, an average grave space is 7 ft x 4 ft, making 28 sq ft.) For a space for cremated remains, the average might be 2 ft x 2ft, making 4 sq ft.
- Whether the space to be reserved is to be used for a single-depth grave or a double-depth grave for full burial, or for the burial of cremated remains. (In order to maximise use of space in a churchyard, it is usual for double spaces to be double-depth rather than side by side.)
- The amount of money the petitioner undertakes to pay to the Parochial Church Council towards the upkeep and maintenance of the churchyard. This is usually a one-off payment, not an annual payment, has to be agreed before a petition is lodged although it becomes payable only when a faculty is issued. The Incumbent and PCC can advise on the amounts usually paid.
- A plan of the churchyard (or a portion of it) showing the exact position of the space to be appropriated and giving measurements and distances from the boundaries of the churchyard or some permanent conspicuous point, and ideally the row and grave number. The plan need not be elaborate but it must be sufficient to enable the plot to be identified at the time the petition is lodged and in the future.
- The written consent of the Incumbent (or Rural Dean if no incumbent) and Churchwardens to the proposed reservation.
- A copy Resolution of the PCC, signed by the Chairman or Secretary, supporting the petitioner’s request, naming the applicant and identifying the grave space.
- Any other document or statement which the petitioner may consider to be relevant to his/her request and may assist the Court.
If any of the consents is not forthcoming, a Petition may still be lodged, but the Court will not readily grant a reservation which does not have the relevant support, and strong arguments will be needed if it is to succeed.
A faculty is limited to the number of years decided by the Court partly out of consideration of the age of each applicant. (Under Section 8 of the Faculty Jurisdiction Measure 1964 no such faculty can exceed the maximum term of 100 years.)
The faculty fee payable by cheque to Batt Broadbent changes at the beginning of each new year. Please telephone the Registry on 01722 432390 for the up to date fee.