Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Eighth Report


English Heritage

  88. The most significant way in which the historic importance of a cemetery can be recognised, both symbolically and practically, is by its addition to the English Heritage-maintained Register of Parks and Gardens. Currently, there are 26 cemeteries on the register, which contains a total of some 1,365 sites.[199] Six of these cemeteries are graded II*, the rest Grade II.

89. In 1994, Dr Chris Brooks, a leading authority on cemeteries, undertook for English Heritage a 'Theme Study' on cemeteries.[200] The study, which was not exhaustive, submitted descriptions of 56 sites for inclusion: 15 at Grade I; 17 at Grade II*; and 24 at Grade II. Only a handful of these were on the original register. Dr Brooks further recommended that a national survey be undertaken to identify those cemeteries in the national stock which are historically and aesthetically important, to provide historical information on them, to compile a basic photographic record and to make recommendations for registration, designation as a Conservation Area, or (in the case of buildings in cemeteries) listing. He suggested that a total of about 300 cemeteries could be registered, in whole or in part.

90. The English Heritage memorandum told us of a number of initiatives which they are currently undertaking which, it is hoped, will go some way towards greater recognition and protection of the historical value of cemeteries.[201] These include:

  • publishing in the next 12 months guidance explaining the listing criteria for cemetery structures;

  • conducting surveys of cemeteries to identify those structures of listable quality which are not currently protected;

  • in upgrading the Register of Parks and Gardens, to assess cemeteries as a priority within the next two years (referred to by English Heritage as the 'Cemeteries Review Project'[202]);

  • preparing a guidance note on the conservation of historic cemeteries;

  • publishing a Technical Advisory Note on repair of churchyard tombstones (planned for September this year).

£80,000 has been allocated over the two years from April 2001 for the Cemeteries Review project.[203]

91. This work is very welcome - albeit that progress following the completion of Dr Brooks' study has been very slow. However, even when the review of cemeteries by English Heritage is complete, we heard that the total number of registered cemeteries would probably be only around a hundred. This represents a tiny proportion of those nineteenth-century cemeteries of historic importance. English Heritage must reconsider its criteria for registering cemeteries, and for listing their structures, if statutory listing is adequately to reflect their historic importance.

92. Given the significance of cemeteries to local communities, it is important that those communities be able to play as full a part as possible in the process of registering. Oliver Pearcey, Director of Conservation at English Heritage, described to us in oral evidence how a member of the public can get involved with this process.[204] We therefore welcome English Heritage's intention to supplement their national telephone information service by making all their statutory lists available on the Internet, and we recommend that this project be completed as soon as possible.

93. As English Heritage's memorandum recognises, even where cemeteries are not of national historic importance, they may nevertheless be of considerable local significance. Even were Dr Brooks's recommendations for the Register to be implemented in full, the vast majority of cemeteries will not be registered. It is very important therefore that local authorities identify those cemeteries of importance to local communities and use their planning powers to protect them from damage.

94. Local planning authorities have the power to designate cemeteries - or areas including cemeteries - as Conservation Areas. English Heritage told us:

    Conservation Area status brings with it a combination of controls and obligations to enhance the historic environment and new designations normally involve a character assessment and formal consultation with the local community. As such, it has considerable potential for enabling local people to express their views and become engaged in the longer-term management of the historic cemetery in question.[205]

English Heritage has already produced guidance for the "character assessment and management" of Conservation Areas, and, as we note above, is preparing a guidance note on the conservation of historic cemeteries.[206] It is clearly essential that regional and local authorities recognise the contribution made to a healthy society by the whole range of cemeteries, from the nationally important historic sites to the small parish sites, and the corresponding damage which poorly managed and under-resourced cemeteries do. As we note above, such recognition is not always apparent.

95. We draw the attention of local authorities to English Heritage's work on the historic interest of cemeteries, and strongly encourage those who have not already done so to consider whether cemeteries for which they are responsible should be protected through designation as a 'Conservation Area'. To assist in this process, English Heritage's guidance note on the conservation of historic cemeteries should address all historic cemeteries, not just those of national significance. We also recommend that EH actively seek the opportunity to support the restoration of a historic cemetery as a pilot project which can serve as an example for others wishing to undertake similar work.

96. We recognise, however, that the work which English Heritage has promised is dependent on the necessary resources being found. The very necessary work which is being done on both cemeteries and public parks has only been possible by the cancellation of other projects.[207] English Heritage is facing an 18% cut in grant in real terms over the three years from 2000.[208] The agency's recent publication Power of Place has identified a serious problem of under-resourcing of the whole of the historic environment.[209] Pam Alexander, the agency's Chief Executive, concluded her evidence to us by referring to "the need not just for urgent repair but for on-going maintenance through the whole of the public realm":

    That is a big issue which we have identified for Government in Power of Place. One of the things which we would see as a very important symbol of their acceptance or otherwise of what Power of Place sets out is the need for a 'State of the Historic Environment' report which actually audits the needs of the historic environment, which ought then to lead to an assessment of what resources are available and what further resources are needed. We have set out the case for resources for buildings at risk - in relation to Grade I and II* buildings at risk, £400 million worth of unfunded work. I am sure that the work needed on cemeteries is a small part of that, but it is a significant part of the public realm. You ask is it realistic that that resource will all be made available. I think we cannot expect to see sudden leaps in grant, either to us or to local authorities, hypothecated to this work, but I hope that by evidence and studies such as yours and by the profile that we are trying to bring to the needs of the public realm, we will not only gain Government support for it as a priority but, also, be able to work better with local authorities through the cultural strategies and the strategic partnerships which are being set up to draw in other resources which are about reviving local areas. Some of those resources may be put to good use in this area.[210]

We are concerned that the proper recognition and preservation not only of parks and cemeteries, but also of many other vital elements of the historic environment, may be being put at risk by the lack of the necessary resources. We urge the Government to study Power of Place carefully, and to take the necessary action, including allocation of resources, to ensure that England's historic environment is properly protected for the benefit of current and future generations.


  97. The problem of the lack of adequately trained staff to manage and work in cemeteries is a serious one. Yet, were local authorities only to recognise the problem, they would discover that structures already exist to deal with it. The industry has been active in promoting good standards of practice, including the administration of a diploma scheme, based on peer teaching.[211] The IBCA Diploma is recognised by most larger burial authorities as an essential requirement for cemetery management staff above a given level.[212] However, as we have noted above, there appears to be a substantial problem amongst the smaller burial authorities, where those with overall responsibility for cemeteries are often charged with a wide range of other tasks and as a result do not necessarily have the appropriate range of skills and expertise to ensure the best possible running of the cemetery.[213] One way around this problem could be for smaller burial authorities to consider the appointment of a trained manager who would supervise work across a number of authorities.

98. Not only are properly trained personnel essential if the bereaved are to be given the level of service to which we believe they are entitled; but the introduction of basic training for all cemetery managers could make a significant contribution to the regeneration and good maintenance of many currently under-managed cemeteries.[214] We welcome the Home Office Minister's recognition of the problem of the lack of properly trained staff for cemeteries, and we look forward to speedy Government action to remedy the situation.[215] One of the first tasks of the Government's new advisory group[216] should be to develop guidelines on the basic training needed for cemetery managers, drawing on the work already done by the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration, and to disseminate these guidelines across all burial authorities, particularly the smaller ones. It should also carry out further research into where the training deficit is most serious, and recommend appropriate policies for addressing the problem. In particular, the advisory committee should consider whether it is necessary to specify minimum levels of training or qualifications for cemetery managers.[217]

Cemetery Inspection

99. The Home Office has the power (under the Burial Act 1855) to appoint a person to inspect a burial ground, but has chosen not to establish a formal inspectorate. Instead, it appoints inspectors on an ad hoc basis to examine and make reports on particular problems which have been drawn to its attention.[218] Three such reports in relation to six cemeteries have been obtained since 1995.[219]

100. There is evident unhappiness in the industry that the Home Office chooses to be reactive rather than proactive on the issue of standards. The Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration (IBCA) wrote

    Current arrangements are piecemeal and rely on goodwill rather than official regulation. These arrangements cannot hope to address the issues facing the service and much bad practice goes undetected. The public deserves better in this sensitive provision.[220]

Indeed dissatisfaction at the current system of inspection, which effectively amounts to peer review, has led IBCA and its sister organisation, the Confederation of Burial Authorities (CBA), the two main industry bodies, to withdraw cooperation with the Home Office on the appointment of inspectors.[221]

101. It is not just the unhappiness of the industry which leads us to suggest, however, that the Government may need to review its position on the establishment of a formal inspectorate. We were disturbed to hear of the substantial anecdotal evidence that malpractice - caused both deliberately and through ignorance - is widespread in the industry.[222] Ken West, of Carlisle City Council, for example, told us

    At the moment there are 30 or 40 private sites out there which are operating under legislation about which we know nothing; there is literally no legislation. We have no idea indeed whether they are taking income from reserved graves and whether that income is protected if the company collapses. We also have no idea whether the requirements of the Cemeteries Order, under which for instance three foot of soil is placed over the coffin, are being complied with. There are no inspections or checks...[223]

The problem is not confined to private sites. Mr West also told us of a municipal site at Merthyr Tydfil, where "literally many hundreds of bodies were buried just below the surface and when that came out it was then discovered that the bodies were all in the wrong graves and all sorts of things."[224]

102. Home Office officials told us, "We need to be careful we do not create an inspectorate and then go and look for the problems."[225] Our view, however, is that it is precisely when Government does not look for problems that the greatest trouble is likely to be caused when they eventually do come to light. The Government of the day was only pushed into the introduction in the nineteenth century of the present regulation of burial by a series of scandals relating to the inappropriate disposal of the dead. The recent events at Alder Hey and elsewhere, to which we have already alluded, are a more up-to-date warning of what can happen when bad practices are allowed to continued unchecked. The present Government would do well to heed the lessons of both these examples.

103. Many of our witnesses suggested that the establishment of a permanent inspectorate was now necessary.[226] Such an inspectorate could undertake a number of useful functions, including:

  • ensuring compliance with the relevant legislation;

  • handling complaints about cemeteries;

  • setting standards for maintenance and for service provision;

  • commissioning and overseeing relevant research programmes;

  • organising seminars and training days, particularly for smaller burial authorities;

  • developing and disseminating good practice; and

  • developing policy relating to cemeteries.

A commitment expressed at a high level to ensuring standards would have a positive knock-on effect for the industry, and express to local authority departments the importance of offering a service that operates according to specified regulations. As the Association of Burial Authorities wrote

    With a single responsible agency there would be the prospect of the making of coherent relevant policy for cemeteries, and their treatment by everyone as important public places to be held in proper regard as a significant part of the landscape. Only then will our burial policy cease to be governed by the Victorians' fear of a second epidemic of cholera.[227]

104. The Home Office Minister declared himself as yet unconvinced of the need for a standing inspectorate, suggesting that the present arrangements had been "perfectly adequate".[228] However, stating that he was "increasingly of the view that we ought now to look at the sufficiency and adequacy of powers and policy",[229] he also announced his intention to set up "an advisory group of relevant professional and other bodies who are able to give advice on these issues as and when asked", and to keep the question of a standing inspectorate under review.[230]

105. We look forward to the speedy establishment of the Government's advisory group, which should at the earliest possible opportunity communicate to all burial authorities in the country its existence and expertise and the help it is able to offer. We recommend that it take on immediately the tasks of dissemination of good practice, setting of standards and policy development which we have identified for an inspectorate, including particularly the development and dissemination of guidelines on basic training.[231] The advisory committee should urgently investigate the case for its replacement by a standing inspectorate, and the possible scope and size of such an inspectorate.

Monument Safety

  106. The issue of monument safety is perhaps the most urgent of all those which need to be addressed, and was raised by a large number of witnesses to this inquiry.[232] Cemeteries and closed churchyards contain very large numbers of ageing monuments, tombs and memorials, some of which have deteriorated to the point at which they present a significant risk to the safety of both visitors to cemeteries and those who work in them. In addition, we were told that even more recently erected memorials can present a danger, either where they have been inadequately fixed or where cemetery managers have destabilised the headstone by removing the kerbset from around the grave, or even by weedkilling around the base of the headstone - measures commonly undertaken by local authorities seeking to make savings on maintenance. According to data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), there have been ten accidents arising from unstable memorials since 1982, three of them fatal.[233]

107. The risks to the public and to cemetery workers posed by unsafe memorials is reason enough in itself to ensure action is taken urgently. However, there are other reasons to be concerned about the state into which many of these monuments have fallen. Both taken together and in some cases individually memorials in cemeteries and churchyards make a considerable contribution to our national heritage. As Harrogate Borough Council (which has a particular interest in the matter, as the owner of the cemetery in which the most recent fatal accident took place) told us

    Memorials hold significant historical wealth, with dates and names. Therefore the cemeteries are a witness to the past. Conservationists see this as the heritage of the district with many memorials portraying a valuable background to local and regional history, and architectural and artistic significance. Without financial assistance many of those memorials will be lost for ever along with the cultural and historical significance that the memorials provide.[234]

Furthermore, the poor state of many of such memorials - and the measures which have to be taken to deal with them, such as cordoning off monuments or laying headstones flat - make a significant contribution to the poor condition of many of our cemeteries. Bristol City Council told us

    The maintenance of the thousands of memorials rests with the grave owners but this means that, in reality, very little maintenance is carried out and cemeteries frequently have an air of neglect and lack of care ... Last year eight hundred gravestones were identified as being unsafe in Bristol City Council owned cemeteries and had to be laid down. In the current year a further two or three hundred stones will be laid down for health and safety reasons.[235]

Cemeteries with decrepit memorials, rows of headstones laid flat, and areas cordoned off with red and white tape are not, in our view, fit places for the service of the bereaved.

108. Clearly lack of resources for repair and restoration is a very significant reason why such moments have been left in this condition. The problem is, however, exacerbated by a combination of other complicating factors. Firstly, as noted in the quotation from Bristol City Council above, gravestones and other memorials are, for the most part, private property. As families cease visiting the grave and move away from the area, they cease to take responsibility for keeping them in an acceptable condition. Because monuments are private property, local authorities themselves, even were the resources available, are empowered to make repairs only where they pose an immediate risk to health and safety.[236] The fact that memorials are usually in private ownership may also complicate the obtaining of grants for their restoration from the Heritage Lottery Fund.[237]

109. Secondly, the regulations pertaining to the erection of memorials are not adequately policed.[238] As a result, the existing problem of old, crumbling monuments is in many places being exacerbated by the addition of new memorials which have been inadequately fixed.[239] Part of the reason for this is the lack of properly trained cemetery staff on which we have already commented;[240] but there is also the problem of the lack of resources available to local authorities to cover the staffing costs of having someone supervise the work of the mason.

110. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has an important role to play in ensuring the safety of monuments in cemeteries. HSE has responsibility for the enforcement of the duty on burial authorities under the Heath and Safety at Work etc. Act to ensure, so far as is reasonably practical, the health and safety of their employees and of other persons working in or visiting cemeteries.[241] We were concerned by the account given by Harrogate Borough Council of the somewhat insensitive way in which HSE carried out its enforcement responsibilities following the fatal accident in a Harrogate cemetery last year.[242] HSE defended its actions in that case,[243] but we are nevertheless concerned that the agency is not fully taking into account the context within which cemetery managers have to take decisions about the repair of cemetery monuments. It appears that HSE is not necessarily striking the right balance between the heritage and amenity value of cemeteries, on the one hand, and health and safety considerations, on the other. Whilst we recognise the importance of ensuring that unsafe memorials do not cause any further deaths or serious injuries, we believe that the Health and Safety Executive could act with greater sensitivity towards the historical and cultural significance of such memorials. We recommend that HSE have urgent discussions with English Heritage regarding memorial safety, and that it ensure that its inspectors are fully aware of the heritage and amenity value of cemeteries when taking decisions about enforcement action.

111. English Heritage signified in their evidence to us their intention to produce a Technical Advisory Note on churchyard tombstone repair and conservation, which will have direct relevance to cemetery monuments.[244] This is a welcome development, and we hope that this advisory note will gain the widest possible circulation. The National Association of Memorial Masons also runs training courses on memorial safety, and once again we hope that these will be made widely known and available.[245]

112. The biggest obstacle to the proper restoration of unsafe memorials, however, remains the lack of resources. Whatever action is taken regarding better training for cemetery workers and even HSE inspectors, if the funds are not available for restoration, the only option is likely to be the wholesale clearance or laying flat of memorials that may constitute a danger to the public. Despite the fact that, technically, such monuments are in private ownership, we were encouraged to hear that the Heritage Lottery Fund was not taking too dogmatic a line towards granting funds for their restoration.[246] The HLF alone, however, cannot be expected to find the funds needed to make safe all dangerous memorials across the country. The Government should make available specified funds for selected programmes of renovation of unsafe memorials. Access to these funds should be conditional on the development of detailed management plans for the sites in question.[247]

Halting decline: change requiring legislative enactment

Reuse of graves

  113. Very many witnesses suggested that one way in which a range of the difficulties currently facing cemeteries could be ameliorated would be for legislation to be introduced allowing the reuse of graves.[248]

Current situation

  114. Buried human remains may not be removed or disturbed without a Home Office licence or, in certain circumstances, a faculty, or except otherwise as may be provided for by statute to enable burial grounds to be developed for other purposes.[249] Home Office licences are not granted for the purpose of reusing the grave for further burials.[250] As a result, whereas old cemeteries may be reused for residential, commercial or other development, they may not be reused as burial grounds.[251] It is the Government's view that further legislation would be needed to enable such reuse to take place.[252]

115. Dr Tony Walter set out in his memorandum the history behind this situation, and its consequences:

    Throughout the Middle Ages, throughout western Europe, the dead were buried in or around the local church. Old bones made way for new burials, rendering the system sustainable for centuries. It became unsustainable for two reasons:

      a)  From the 17th century, the fashion arose of seeing the grave as family property, along with the desire of the middle classes for a perpetual grave. The churchyard above ground began to fill up with perpetual memorials.

      b)  From the late 18th century, the population explosion meant that new burials were uncovering not old bones but still rotting flesh - hence the burial crisis of the early to mid 19th century. The urban churchyard below ground was now also full.

    In other European countries, the 19th century burial crisis was resolved by creating new cemeteries in which re-use of graves was not, as before, ad hoc, but carefully planned. Leases were given for a set number of years ... after this period, the lease could be renewed (as often as the family liked and were willing to pay for); otherwise, the grave became available for a new family. The consequence is that, throughout Europe today, many communities of quite high population density retain a local cemetery which sustains the ongoing burial of local residents. By definition, no grave is an unwanted grave; they are all tended; vandalism is low; revenue continues to come in; and the prime purpose of the cemetery can be fulfilled. Those who wish a perpetual grave may buy one - but they pay a realistic price for it.

      In the UK, by contrast, the 19th century burial crisis was solved by creating large out-of-town cemeteries with perpetual graves. Partly because of the fear of the anatomist, [people] aspired to a single and undisturbable grave. Cemeteries began to fill up; as towns developed, the out-of-town cemetery was no longer out-of-town. Revenue began to decline as the number of remaining available graves declined, at the same time that surrounding land values were increasing. The urban cemetery began to become a liability. Some of the private cemetery companies were taken over by municipalities, who in the mid 20th century turned to cremation as the cost-effective solution to the 20th century burial crisis - a crisis which was now financial, compared to the public health crisis of the 19th century. Urban cemeteries typically have large areas where old graves are no longer visited; there is not the revenue to maintain these graves properly, and vandals and substance abusers find these unfrequented urban wildernesses a haven for their nefarious activities. ... The UK, therefore, has inherited a solution to the 19th century burial crisis that - uniquely in the western world - is unsustainable.[253]

199  Ev pp. 213-214 Back

200  Ev pp. 134-135; p.155 Back

201  Ev pp. 156-158 Back

202  Ev p.213 Back

203  Ev p.213; Q468 Back

204  Q426 Back

205  Ev p.156 Back

206  Ev p.158 Back

207  Ev p.213 Back

208  Minutes of Evidence taken before the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Tuesday 14 March 2000, Town and Country Parks: Follow Up, QQ110-117 Back

209  Q460 Back

210  Q506 Back

211  Ev p.15 Back

212  See, for example, ev p.87. Back

213  Q17 Back

214  Ev p.92; p.124 Back

215  Q512 Back

216  See paras 104-105 below Back

217  See ev p.87; p.92; p.111; p.124 Back

218  Ev p.80 Back

219  Ev p.80 Back

220  Ev p.13 Back

221  Q333 Back

222  Ev p.13; p.89; pp. 201-202; Q245-250; Q340 Back

223  Q348 Back

224  Q350 Back

225  Q165 Back

226  Ev p.13; p.38; p.57; p.111; p.123; p.136; p.152; p.199; Q233; Q239; Q337 Back

227  Ev p.20 Back

228  Q551 Back

229  Q512 Back

230  Q551 Back

231  See para 98 above Back

232  Ev p.20; p.49; p.54; p.63; p.66; pp. 174-178; p.86; p.104; p.119; p.122; pp. 135-136; p.162; p.167; p.167; pp. 167-168; pp. 185-186; p. 187; pp. 187-190; &c. Back

233  Ev p.187 Back

234  Ev p.178 Back

235  Ev p.119 Back

236  Ev p.186. See article 3, Local Authorities' Cemeteries Order 1977 Back

237  Ev p.60; QQ428-430 Back

238  Ev p.64; Q371 Back

239  Annex Back

240  Ev p.186 Back

241  Ev p.185 Back

242  Ev pp. 174-178 Back

243  Ev pp. 187-189 Back

244  Ev p.158 Back

245  Q364 Back

246  QQ428-430 Back

247  See para 126 below. Back

248  Ev p.13; p.21; p.39; p.45; pp. 56, 57; pp. 63, 64; p.67; p.76; pp. 91-92; pp.101, 102; p.102; p.110; p.123; pp. 136-137; p.148; pp. 151, 152; Q11; &c. Back

249  Ev p.79. See footnote 10 on that page for further details. Back

250  Ev p.102 Back

251  Ev p.57; p.193 Back

252  Ev p.215 Back

253  Ev pp. 68-69 Back

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