So, you’ve run out of space in your cemetery: what do you do? Devotees of Cemetery Club will recall Sheldon, Christina and other describing how the Magnificent Seven were forced to close to new internments as demand outstripped supply. The living may be forced to bury their dead in far-flung places not of their first choosing or maybe even consider a nice tidy cremation instead! But what if you are a thriving local village church, still serving a community whose members desire a local resting place for their mortal remains? I was fascinated to hear of just such a turn of events at the secluded and stunningly beautiful church of St. Martin of Tours, Chelsfield, Kent.
St. Martin (same saintly dedication as that of St. Martin-in-the-fields) was a fourth century Roman Soldier turned conscientious objector, monkish missionary and latterly Bishop of Tours in central France. He was deemed responsible for several miracles, including the most famous story associated with him, when he divided his cloak to share with a freezing pauper who Martin then envisioned in a dream as being Christ himself. He awoke to find the garment restored to its original immaculate fullness. This and other such miraculous stories led to Martin being elevated to Sainthood and Patron Saint of Soldiers. It is thought that the name of this saint was introduced to England by the Norman aristocracy who accompanied William the Conqueror. As they settled the land and founded churches in the Norman style, Martin is one of the saints to whom these soldier invaders dedicated their churches.
The parish Church of Chelsfield was divided from the centre of old Chelsfield village in 1926 when the new Orpington Bypass was built to relieve traffic from the nearby town centre, linking the A21 with the A20. The lack of any large scale development has meant that the church retains an air of seclusion which, as it turns out, has served it rather well. St. Martin’s church is a beautiful building showing clear signs of its Norman origins. There were two graveyards, the original one surrounding the church building itself and a latter extension. Clever and wise church leaders noticed that more space would soon be needed and about 30 years ago an area of farmland adjacent to the existing graveyard was purchased from the Tryhorn family for the church by public subscription. It remained unused and grazed by horses until the original graveyards were full. But this was only the start of the process.
Chelsfield used to be in Kent but is now part of the vast London Borough of Bromley and planning permission for a change of use from farmland to burial ground was required. Bromley Council consulted English Heritage who dug test holes to ascertain whether there were any significant archaeological remains on the site – a painfully long and frustrating process by all reports. Once planning permission was eventually obtained, a faculty from the Diocese of Rochester was required for the burial ground as well as permission to re-build a decaying Victorian boundary wall. Simple post and rail fencing was erected to mark out the land to be consecrated and all was set for the Consecration service itself.
On a gloriously sunny Sunday in July 2013 the Rt. Rev. Brian Castle, Bishop of Tonbridge, conducted the service of consecration supported by the church wardens who signed on behalf of the incumbent, as the church was without a Rector at the time. Holy water was sprinkled in each of the four corners of the new burial ground using a branch of Rosemary. Prayers were said and, finally, a brand new cemetery was ready for use.
The new ground provides spaces for 1000 plots which, at an average burial rate of ten per year will hopefully last St. Martin’s for the next 100 years. Anyone who is a member of the church electoral roll or who is resident within the parish has a right to be buried there; others may also be laid to rest with the permission of the Incumbent. However, there will be no grand mausoleums or grand Victorian monumental architecture here, the rules of the Rochester Diocese are strict: Headstone only, no monuments, thank you!
Post script: Mr Tryhorn (of the family from whom the land was purchased) recently died and, although he had chosen to be cremated, the church gave his family plot number one. Accordingly, he will forever occupy ‘pole position’ in the eponymous graveyard.