Practical churchyard management

Published on: 24 March 2017

Although the legal ownership of a churchyard, either open or closed, is usually vested in the incumbent, his/her own rights and obligations in respect of it are very limited.

Today, responsibility for maintaining the churchyard in good condition and maintaining boundary walls almost always rests with the PCC, except in the case where it has been closed by Order in Council and where the obligation has been passed to the local authority. However, the PCC can seek financial help from local authorities and other public bodies. The PCC, whatever the funds at its disposal, must take appropriate steps to deal with any dangerous situation, such as an unsafe monument. The incumbent and the PCC should be adequately covered by insurance against any damages which may be awarded in the event of an accident, but the insured will still be required to take all reasonable steps to remedy any defect which is discovered.

Individual tombstones remain primarily the responsibility of those who erected them and, after their death, of the heirs-at-law of those commemorated, but the PCC may be liable for injury caused by an unsafe tombstone. It is open to anyone to give money on trust for the upkeep of the churchyard as a whole, though not on trust for the upkeep of a particular grave. Where a monument becomes dangerous or derelict, or where its space is required for a new grave, a faculty may be sought for its removal or resiting. Reasonable efforts must be made to find the owner who should be given the opportunity to remove the monument. The parish will be aware of those relatives who regularly tend monuments and memorials as it is important that their concerns are taken into account before embarking on any rearrangements. Equal sensitivity is needed to ensure that churchyards are not cluttered with artificial flowers or similar items as these can cause upset for other families visiting their loved ones.

Damaged monuments need to be repaired as soon as possible, especially if they are in a dangerous condition. However, the need for speedy action does not detract from careful conservation. The works may seem to be straightforward but if done with a lack of understanding they can make the problem worse, especially if the monument in question is historically important.

Regular maintenance of the churchyard is the surest way of preventing future dificulties. Such maintenance includes straightforward repairs, testing the stability of headstones, setting up a mowing/ clearance regime and making sure that pathways are clear.

A PCC should endeavour to agree and publish its own policies on maintenance and repair of its churchyard. Parts of a churchyard that have been enclosed for a long time but have never been used for burials may be particularly rich in plant life and should be maintained with minimal mowing. The creation of a churchyard plan, if one does not already exist, is strongly encouraged. This allows for the clear delineation of inhabited graves to be noted whilst also outlining where reserved burial plots exist. Not only does this help family members find graves but it can stop unfortunate incidents of plots being reserved by more than one person.


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