Once a body or ashes have been buried in consecrated ground (whether in a churchyard or in a municipal cemetery), they may not be exhumed except with the authorisation of a faculty granted by the Chancellor, which will never be granted unless there are special circumstances which justify making an exception to the norm that Christian burial is final.
Nevertheless, an increasing number of petitions for exhumation are being made throughout the country, often in far from exceptional circumstances such as where widows have moved home and can no longer readily visit the grave of their former husbands, or where parents have moved and are unable to visit the graves of a child who has predeceased them.
In some cases, Incumbents appear to be advising applicants that permission will readily be forthcoming; particularly in the case of Incumbents to whose parishes the surviving spouse or parents have moved and who are prepared to make available space for reinterment. It is important that Incumbents and funeral directors inform those planning burial in consecrated ground that this is a final disposal and that the vast majority of petitions for exhumation will necessarily be rejected as a matter of law.
Moving to a new area is not an adequate reason for removing remains, and any medical reason relied upon by a petitioner would have to be very powerful indeed to create an exception to the norm of permanence. For example, they would have to demonstrate serious psychiatric or psychological problems where medical evidence showed a link between that medical condition and the question of location of the grave of a deceased person to whom the petitioner had a special attachment.
There are, however, two situations in which the prospects of obtaining a faculty for exhumation are less remote:
- where a genuine mistake has occurred, for example where a burial took place in the wrong plot in a cemetery
- where there was a lack of knowledge at the time of burial that it was taking place in consecrated ground with its significance as a Christian place of burial.
The second case is where exhumation takes place with a view to reinterment in an existing or proposed family grave. Such multiple use of grave space is to be encouraged, as an expression of family unity and as an economical use of land for burials.
It should not, however, be assumed that a petition for a faculty for exhumation will automatically be granted whenever the possibility of a family grave is raised. A husband and wife should make provision in advance by way of acquisition of a double grave space if they wish to be buried together; and, where exhumation is contemplated, there will need to be clear evidence as to the existence of the legal right to such a family grave if no family member has already been buried in it.