ACT News


A despairing husband and a church unmoved

Frank Gifford has letters from the Prime Minister and the Governor-General and a Nobel Peace Medal among the family portraits on the walls of his modest home at Eaglehawk.

But among the evidence of the full life he's lived, the 87-year-old former federal policeman broke into tears as he said he had one last thing to achieve before he died; to get permission for his wife Irene to be buried with her father.

It's the topic of a long-running dispute the family has had with St John's Church in Reid, with neither party having record of the purchase of the burial plot where Mrs Gifford's father rests. The church insists the family must produce an exclusive rights certificate if Mrs Gifford is to be buried in the cemetery, which has been closed since 1937. They don't have the paper, but argue the fact her father, Ernest "Ernie" Hobbs, was buried there 16 years after the cemetery closed indicates he must have owned the plot.

The long-running argument has left the Gifford family frustrated.

"If you know anyone that's got more history [with the church] than this lady, I'd be amazed," Mr Gifford said of his wife, who today lives with dementia in Kankinya nursing home in Lyneham.

"St John's married everybody in [her] family - married them, funeral services, christenings," he said.


The family history indicates Ernie Hobbs first bought a burial plot in the St John's yard in 1934, when his wife Eliza gave birth to a stillborn son. In 1935 Eliza had another son who lived just 10 minutes. That baby was buried with his brother, thereby filling the grave with a maximum of two bodies allowed by law. When Eliza died from medical complications five days later, Ernie reportedly bought two more plots so he and his wife could one day lie side by side.

The churchyard was officially closed for burials in 1937.

Despite the church claiming there is no record of Ernie Hobbs' purchase of either of the two plots the family believes he bought in 1935, he was buried next to his wife in 1953 after he died in Irene's arms.

Mr Gifford recalled his father-in-law's instructions not to spend money on a headstone until his grave was filled, indicating his wish for a family member to be buried with him.

Mrs Gifford instigated the request to be buried with her father, and has always insisted she is not to be cremated. Her husband has made it his aim to grant her wish.

Their sons support the parents' cause - eldest son Peter, who found fame as the bass player in Midnight Oil, sees it as a simple case of property rights - but with none living in Canberra, it is a fellow retired AFP officer, Michael Stevenson, who has helped Mr Gifford mount his case.

"To me this is so blatantly obvious that what is happening is unfair, and to allow it to happen is of no detriment to the church whatsoever, they get the funeral, they get the fees," Mr Stevenson said.

"If they would give me a definitive, logical answer as to why it can't happen, then I'd probably go away, but they can't.''

St John's has records of seven approaches by Hobbs family members seeking burial in the plot.

Each time church officials said that without the exclusive burial rights certificate, Commonwealth regulation won't allow for a full burial.

"The churchyard was closed in 1937 for burials, except if people, from 1920 to 1937, purchased exclusive rights," the Reverend Paul Black said.

"No exclusive rights were sold to the Hobbs family for plot 590, which means that no one is eligible for burial in that plot,'' Mr Black said.

''Mr Ernest Hobbs was buried in 1953 in plot 590 and we have no knowledge of why his body was accepted for burial at that time."

Mr Black does not accept the family's hypothesis that a record of ownership must have existed at the time, and could not say if the church had records of anyone else owning plot 590.

"We have very good records of the 193 certificates that were sold," he insisted.

"I empathise with the family, but … the regulations do not permit a burial under these circumstances. We're very happy if she were to be cremated, for her ashes to be interred."

An appeal by Senator Gary Humphries failed to get Mr Black to reconsider, but the senator still believes Mrs Gifford has a compelling case.

"Reverend Black hasn't refuted that there have been a number of exceptions granted over the years. [He] conceded there was an anomaly or exception for Ernest Hobbs in 1953 in that very plot, so it leads to, I think, the conclusion that exceptions can be made," Senator Humphries said.

"The argument, as it was originally contended, that the Commonwealth has excluded any further burials is not true - burials have taken place, presumably legally, and I still don't know why the parish will not agree to Mrs Gifford being buried there."