Burials in Churchyards

September 20th, 2013

By Patsy Wallace

I was recently asked to take a funeral for a young child. Her parents live in a small village and had arranged for her to be buried in the local churchyard, as they wanted to be able to visit her grave. There is no natural burial ground in the vicinity.

The vicar initially insisted that only he could conduct the committal if it was to be in the churchyard. The family were adamant that they didn’t want any religious content in either the ceremony (which was held in the village hall) or at the committal. The funeral director attempted to negotiate with the vicar, who then obtained a legal opinion, which sets out exactly what the position is regarding burial in a churchyard. Actually “exactly” is a bit of a misnomer, because I think the Burials Act of 1880 leaves a lot of questions – probably because they didn’t have humanists conducting ceremonies then.

For information the full legal opinion is quoted below. The main points seem to be:

  • That any parishioner, or person dying in the parish, is entitled to be buried in the churchyard, regardless of their religion or otherwise.
  • The local vicar cannot insist on taking the burial him (or her) self, nor can he/she insist that there is a religious burial service.
  • However, if a burial service takes place, the vicar can insist that it is done in a “Christian and orderly” manner.

It seemed to me that the key to this was the definition of a “burial service”. I spoke to the vicar and suggested that I would not be conducting a burial service, but merely saying a few words at the committal with the ceremony (or service) taking place elsewhere – in this case the village hall. He agreed to this approach, although he was keen to warn me of the possible adverse reactions from “some people” in his congregation if we went on for too long, or appeared to be conducting a service.

The burial was in a corner of the churchyard well away from any houses or prying eyes, so there was no way that “some people” could have been offended by the committal. Actually it was a beautiful event with flowers, champagne and balloons.

If anyone finds themselves in a similar situation I hope this will be helpful.