Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Churches Funeral Group (CEM 105)

  1.  We welcome the Select Committee's decision to examine cemeteries and provision for burial, and are grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the debate.

  2.  The Churches have made a major contribution down the centuries to witnessing the importance of the reality of death, liturgical and pastoral care for the dying and for mourners, and to providing land for burial and memorialisation.

  Burial was the Christian tradition since the burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This mode of disposal has always signified Christian beliefs about human mortality and the hope and form of an afterlife. Churches have always attached importance to providing a special place for the dead of a community.

  Our principal concern is two-fold: (1) the needs of bereaved people, both at the time of a funeral and when visiting graves and burial grounds; (2) the care of dead people. As member of a society, we have moral obligations to our dead. A society that does not honour its dead members may then neglect to honour its elderly members.

  The Group supports both the recent Charters, the National Funerals College's Dead Citizens Charter (revised edition, 1998) and the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration's Charter for the Bereaved (1996).

  3.  With reference to the paper by Mr Andrew Bennett MP, "Cremation and the Environment" (Phonos International Vol 66, No 4, Winter 2000, pp 8-10), the Group shares his concern for enhancing the role of cemeteries in schemes of urban regeneration and the making of cities more desirable places of residence. We believe that burial grounds have a special role in providing a sense of place. The parish churchyard was the very essence of local identity. We support the Committee in its concern to find roles for cemeteries (the successor to churchyards for the 100 years after 1850) in culture, leisure, history, wildlife, as well as in symbolising the place of the dead in the life of the community.

  4.  We would respectfully point out that any reorganisation of burial arrangements will have effects upon arrangements for cremation.

  Whilst the traditional mode of disposal for Christians has been burial, cremation has been accepted and adopted by the Church of England, most Free Churches and (since 1964) the Roman Catholic Church. Cremation now accounts for about 72 per cent of funerals in the UK and has been the predominant form of disposal of the dead since the late 1960s. Given Muslim traditions of burial and Hindu/Sikh traditions about cremation, it is important that both forms of disposal are available to local communities in Britain.

  Would it be possible to broaden the Select Committee's brief to look at the issue of disposal as a whole? Most cremation authorities are also burial authorities, and the two methods of disposal are commonly linked as one service within a local authority. Indeed, it is very common for crematoria to be situated in a cemetery.

  At the same time, we are aware and concerned that any significant shift of public preference from cremation back towards burial would cause considerable problems, both of space and funding, for those who provide burial space.

  5.  Any enquiry into provision for cemeteries must include an analysis of local authority funding for cemeteries, their provision and their maintenance: this must extend to the costs of closed cemeteries, and those churchyards taken over from parish churches.

  There is huge variety in the care local authorities give to closed churchyards. Whilst some local authorities (eg Bedfordshire) take their responsibilities very seriously, others do not. We are concerned that in some inner city and suburban churchyards there is little funding available, which can lead to deterioration. We are in favour of policies of partial or full reopening, both for the burial of bodies and cremated remains and would encourage setting aside a portion of the fee specifically for maintenance.

  The attitude to provision of cemeteries varies between local authorities, as does the provision of resources devoted to their maintenance. As a result, fees for burial vary widely throughout the country, ranging from under £100 to around £1,000. This does not represent good value for UK citizens, and is something of a "postcode lottery".

  6.  The Group shares the concern first expressed by Dr Ian Hussein and followed up in the LPAC Report (1997) about the steadily declining space available for burial in the London Boroughs. This is likely to be an increasing problem with other large cities.

  (After Ian Hussein's paper at the Joint Burial and Cremation conference in 1993, it was the Group's representative, Peter Jupp, who was invited to propose from the floor that a feasibility study be set up to test public attitudes to policies of re-using old graves. This was carried and the subsequent study published (Davies and Shaw, 1995).

  7.  The Group is much in favour of legislation to re-use old graves for future burials. It looks forward to the green paper on this subject currently being prepared by the Home Office, and to the debate which should follow it. The Group would welcome cooperation between the appropriate State and Church legal authorities to enable re-use in both Church-owned and local government-owned burial grounds.

  Re-use of graves was traditional in churchyards until the establishment of burial grounds and cemeteries in the nineteenth century, but Victorian sensibilities about the sanctity of burial precluded the exhumation of bodies to allow for further burials. Changing social pressures and the shortage of suitable (and accessible) land for burial now presents us with few options for the continuance of burial in the UK, and re-use of graves is the favoured option of those involved in the provision of burials. The re-use of graves is common in European countries and also in Australia.

  8.  The Group is in favour of the reopening of closed churchyards, particularly for the burial and memorialisation of cremated remains. This will contribute to the Department of the Environment's concern for urban regeneration and the role that churchyard spaces can play in leisure, wildlife and, especially, the memorialisation of the dead. If extended forms of re-use and the reopening of closed churchyards were both permitted and encouraged, the Churches could make much more burial space available, especially in urban areas. Reopening closed churchyards would also ensure increased visits by bereaved people, which would help to deter vandalism and other anti-social uses that churchyards currently often endure.

  9.  The Group supports making available the choice of woodland burial, for theological, environmental and economic reasons. Burial is the Christian tradition. Ecologically, woodland burial both contributes to natural decomposition and helps stimulate the natural environment, including wildlife. Economically, woodland burial enables savings both for bereaved families and for cemetery/churchyard providers. The Dioceses of Ely, St Albans and Oxford are among those actively pursuing woodland burial schemes, following the lead taken by local authorities like Carlisle and by the Natural Death Movement.

  10.  The Committee should examine the system of differential fees whereby families who wish their dead to be buried outside the borough/district of residence have to pay higher fees. Whilst there are some good reasons for this, the system contains inequalities and should be re-examined as part of a broader examination into the fee structure for burials.

  11.  The issue of choice for bereaved families, and indeed for those preparing for their own deaths, is particularly important in inner-city Boroughs, especially London and other larger cities. Inner London boroughs have few years left for burial space (LPAC report 1997) and not all invested in crematoria. This reduces public choice between modes of disposal.

  12.  The Group is concerned that local authorities could be far more helpful to bereaved families than their arrangements for funerals and visiting currently allow. The Committee's enquiry should include service times, hours of openings, and the possibilities for the use of cemeteries for funerals on Saturdays, Sundays and Public Holidays. Their limited availability at these times denies the public both choice and the opportunity of a good attendance by mourners at times they are free to attend.

  13.  The Group shares the public concern about the restrictions on the opening of some cemeteries and crematoria during the Christmas and New Year period. This is not only during the months of high mortality but at a period of the year particularly meaningful for families. All sections of the funeral services industry should be encouraged to cooperate to redress this situation.

January 2001

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