The St Mary Norton’s Beer Festival faced backlash over the weekend after photos emerged of attendees posing next to graves with beers in hand. Many of those who witnessed the gravestones topped with alcoholic drinks were quick to label the event disrespectful and were outraged at St. Mary’s Church for hosting such a party.

The pictures that sparked outrage made their rounds on social media and the local beer festival garnered national and international attention. Angry residents of the church’s hometown, Stockton-on-Tees, and other offended Facebook users from around the world discussed their opinions regarding the St Mary Norton’s Beer Festival on a local news Facebook group, the Norton and Billingham Info.

What happened at the St Mary Norton's Beer Festival? Many were outraged that attendees were drinking around graves and placing drinks on gravestones.
What happened at the St Mary Norton’s Beer Festival? Many were outraged that attendees were drinking around graves and placing drinks on gravestones. Photo Credit: Facebook

“This is disgraceful behavior, not only from the people involved but from the church for allowing this to happen,” one user commented. “Cemeteries are places for people to pay respects and remember their loved ones, they’re not beer gardens, and those headstones certainly aren’t stools or tables. A public apology is needed here.”

Another Facebook user pointed out: “Why couldn’t they sit on the green, which is just outside, instead of on graves? I think it’s appalling… What a total lack of respect for the deceased and their families.”

More comments flooded the feed, with someone claiming that they “would be livid if [they] had family buried there.” It wasn’t evident why the local beer festival had attendees gathered around graves while they drank, though the organizers did attempt to explain what happened in a subsequent statement posted to Facebook.

“As some of you may be aware, there has been some negative publicity in relation to St Mary’s Beer Festival,” the Three Brothers Brewing Company, which hosted the festival, wrote in a statement Monday morning.

The brewing company explained that “unfortunately, our statement sent to the press has been paraphrased and we, therefore, would like to share the actual statement that was sent to them from my brother David.”

According to the full statement, the St Mary Norton’s Beer Festival returned after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus and was “well received and supported by many in the local community.” The company explained that “coming out of the restrictions we didn’t know how popular the event would be and the support and local passion for the event has been amazing.”

The aim of the festival was to “focus on great beer and a second of welcome and community that has been restricted for so long.” The statement pointed out that “the church is there for so much more than funerals, weddings, and christenings, which Reverend Martin is so passionate about and his inspiration behind the event’s conception. It is for all people and its core focus is on welcoming all.”

According to the statement, “the event is split between the carpark with a mobile bar, food from local suppliers and toilets and the main festival in the church. In-between the 2 is a path with the graveyard surrounding it. There are lots of clear spaces within the graveyard which were used by people for seating with tables and chairs set out accordingly.”

“Given it was a lovely day many people were enjoying the weather and the time to be together which is what this Festival is for,” the statement continued. “At no point were chairs put around gravestones by staff and it was certainly not recommended for people to sit on them. For future events, there will be signage and taping off sections to make this clearer. We will also have even more chairs available outside to give people an alternative.”

Beyond Three Brothers Brewing Company, the vicar of St. Mary’s, Reverend Martin Anderson, also spoke out in defense of the event. He said that it was put on to raise money to fund various repairs necessary for the historic church. Anderson did, however, explain that he was sorry for the incident.  

St. Mary's Reverend Martin Anderson defended the incident at the St. Mary Norton's Beer Festival.
St. Mary’s Reverend Martin Anderson defended the incident at the St Mary Norton’s Beer Festival. Photo Credit: Facebook

“Over the last few days our doors were open once again to members of our local community, young and old, who came to enjoy our Beer Festival, support local business, and spend time with friends old and new,” Reverend Anderson wrote on Facebook. “Through this, we were also able to generate funds to help to maintain our beautiful building, as well as to offer a space for friendship and community.”

“Unfortunately, photographs shared on social media have created considerable negativity, and I am deeply sorry for that,” he continued. “I am saddened that this event, which we’d hoped would bring joy and positivity in our community, has caused so much upset, and apologize to everyone who has expressed their concern.”

While there were many people angry about the disrespectful pictures, others used Facebook to share their support for the event. One user commented on Reverend Anderson’s post, saying that St Mary Norton’s Beer Festival was “another fantastic weekend, with a wonderful atmosphere.”

“As for the use of graves,” he continued. “It was not as widespread as the Gazette is making out. Seating was limited purely because of the huge turnout, and unfortunately, some people failed to see that it may be disrespectful to use a grave or tomb in that way. We were there all afternoon and evening on Saturday, and there were a lot more people actually walking around and reading the headstones and showing interest in the people resting there.”

The Facebook user concluded, saying that “I did not see any disrespect, I think a few people found themselves without a seat and were genuinely unaware that it could cause offense.”

“Oh for goodness sake people are coming together to enjoy themselves I am sure (God rest their souls) people will be happy that they are a part of a celebration and a happy moment please let’s enjoy life,” another person wrote on Facebook.”

Do you think the photos were offensive and disrespectful? Or do you think critics are making a big deal out of nothing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!