Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Cemetery Research Group, University of York (CEM 95)


  The Cemetery Research Group (CRG), based at the University of York, has been operating since 1990. Its remit covers research on the history of cemeteries both in the UK and abroad; the cultural significance of all types of burial space; and the development of past and current cemetery policy. It is the only research institution of its type in the UK. The CRG has strong links with the industry, and for that reason is in a unique position to comment on the issues central to the Committee's Inquiry. This brief overview will concentrate on a handful of key areas which merit particular attention.


  The ownership and management of burial space has always been a core function of any organised society. In the UK for much of the 19th and 20th Century, cultural ambivalence relating to the status of the dead and their disposal led to the gradual devaluating of the place of burial. This situation is beginning to change. Society is becoming more attuned to the needs of the bereaved. Greater attention is being paid to the ways in which cemetery management can contribute to meeting those needs, for example through the provision of special services such as babies' and children's sections in new cemeteries. At the same time, burgeoning interest in family and local history and in environmental issues has revived interest in the merits of older Victorian sites. Cemeteries are considered more important now than at any other time since the end of the First World War. However, policy frameworks do not reflect the growing value assigned to cemeteries. Burial authorities often employ cemetery managers without the requisite training; cemetery matters are rarely considered at higher, strategic management level within local authorities; and successive governments have failed to establish clear departmental responsibility for ensuring that cemetery management is undertaken in compliance with the law. Local authority managers with a desire to improve their services are hampered by archaic legal frameworks and unsympathetic bureaucracies. It is clear that a full review of legislation and management practices is required.


  The narrative account of `death taboo and cemetery neglect' has frequently been illustrated by the fate of a specific handful of Victorian cemeteries in London, most of which were set up before 1850. These cemeteries, which were originally owned by private cemetery companies, fell into disrepair as the companies edged towards bankruptcy. Many were acquired by local authorities during the 1970s and 1980s, a time when cemetery management was geared towards clearance and lawnscaping. Few local authorities would now endorse such measures, but the image of `philistine on a bulldozer' maintenance has endured, often fuelled by poor management practices in the handful of private cemeteries that are still operational.

  A more accurate representation of the fate of the majority of Victorian cemeteries is much more complex. Most Victorian cemeteries are owned by local authorities and always have been. However, capital expenditure on cremation, coupled with a cultural disregard for burial, led to diminishing cemetery budgets. Although the vast majority of Victorian cemeteries are still used for burial, income is not sufficient to cover ongoing expenditure. Massive capital expenditure is required to offset years of under-maintenance.

  Even if funds were available, authorities' powers to repair memorials—an integral component of the cemetery landscape—is restricted to actions that ensure that the memorial is safe. Memorials remain the private property of the families that erect them, and local authorities are not empowered to institute restoration programmes. Changes in the law are required to deal with a huge legacy of memorials with no owner, and to ensure that this problem does not recreate itself with succeeding generations.

  The desire to `save' cemeteries has generally met with a limited response from agencies that should have been proactive in the cause of cemetery conservation. For perhaps a decade now, the Victorian Society and English Heritage have addressed, in a rather unenergetic way, the task of surveying cemeteries to decide which features of which sites are worthy of grant-aid.

  Funding based on the priority protection of what is deemed `the best' will introduce a degree of elitism that is not appropriate to the task of protecting cemetery landscapes. Every cemetery is of integral importance to the history and development of the community in which it is located. Decisions relating to funding should therefore be based on other considerations. It is suggested that attention be given to a guarantee of supporting long-term revenue funding from the site owner; evidence of strategic working with local planning and amenity agencies; and most importantly, evidence of local community input to a management plan. Strength of local commitment to a site—and not necessarily through a Friends group—should be a principal requisite for funding.


  The principal purpose of the cemetery is disposal of the dead; this task should be completed with sensitivity of the needs of the bereaved. The importance of a final resting place has been underlined by recent trends in favour of the formal burial of cremated remains and the erection of memorials over plots in which ashes are buried. The Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration must be congratulated on the production of a Charter for the Bereaved. The institution of Best Value could be a valuable vehicle by which important features of the Charter are established as measurable good practice. At the heart of any strategy for the improvement of cemetery management should be an understanding of how such measures might enhance services for the bereaved. Local authorities should be offered guidance on consultation with user groups.


  One of the more significant features of cemeteries is their intention to serve the whole community. Many contain sections dedicated for use by particular religious denominations. However, some denominations retain a tradition of separate burial. The Church of England has a substantial interest in burial, and interments continue to take place in churchyards that remain under the aegis of special ecclesiastical law. The status of the Church of England as the Established Church means that the Church enjoys particular privileges with respect to its burial space, the foremost of which is the ability to pass responsibility for churchyard maintenance to local authorities once the churchyard is declared closed. Essentially, the Church has been able to enjoy the financial benefits of interment without the responsibility to consider longer-term maintenance. This measure is outmoded and overtly inequitable in a multi-cultural society. The burial spaces of, for example, Nonconformist denominations, Jewish communities and Muslim groups are not afforded like protection. Legislative measures should not privilege some types of burial space over others.


  Generally in the UK, only limited information is readily available on the ownership, management and regulation of cemeteries. There are a number of areas of concern to the Inquiry, where lack of research has meant that there is no definitive statement of affairs. For example, there is uncertainty about:

    —  the number of burial authorities currently in operation;

    —  how many cemeteries are used;

    —  how many burial authorities anticipate running out of space within a given timescale;

    —  common management structures;

    —  the number of denominational burial grounds in operation; and

    —  the role of the private sector in delivering burial services.

  Space precludes a more extensive listing, since the above by no means represents a comprehensive account of areas where further research is required. Successive Governments have avoided taking responsibility for overseeing matters relating to cemeteries, and one consequence has been the absence of a centralised funding source for cemetery research. Lack of research leads to poor policy development. A principal finding of the Committee should be to highlight the need for a full review of existing management structures and practices.


  At present, ownership of burial space in the UK comprises an ad hoc amalgam of small, medium and large local authorities operating singly or jointly; charitable trusts; the Church; and the private sector. Differential laws operate depending on the ownership of the site, and substantial anomolies exist. One area that is proving highly problematic is ownership of cemeteries by private sector companies. The Victorian period saw the rise of investment in cemeteries, and this century has seen their decline. There has been a recent, albeit minor, revival of interest in private sector investment in cemeteries, in part a reflection of the growth of interest in green burials, and the expansion of large-scale corporate enterprises such as Services Corporation International. Burial will remain a loss-making enterprise as long as reuse remains illegal, and the long-term viability of new enterprises remains doubtful. However, there is no legislation to regulate private sector interest in cemeteries: the option remains open for such organisations to make substantial short-term profit, and in the long-term rely on legislative obfuscation to duck out of responsibility for ongoing maintenance. Legislation needs to be framed to regulate new private sector involvement in cemetery establishment, and designate responsibility and funding for the future management of existing private cemeteries facing financial difficulty.

December 2000

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