Memorandum by Mr Steve O'Donovan (CEM
The information regarding the inquiry was only
brought to my attention on Thursday 18 January. Having considered
the scope of the inquiry, I felt it would be remiss of me not
to make contact with you to see if the committee could consider
the issues surrounding the depth of soil cover allowed over coffins.
This issue is a major problem facing burial authorities across
I was, until the end of last year, employed
by Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council. One of my duties
included the managerial responsibility of the councils cemeteries,
I had until my appointment with the Best Value Inspectorate of
the Audit Commission, been responsible for managing Local Authority
cemeteries for 18 years.
The legislation regarding the proper management
of cemeteries is contained in the Local Authority Cemeteries Order
of 1977, and this contains quite specific information regarding
the depth of burials, in part 1 of schedule 2, section 2.
During the time I was responsible for cemeteries
I was always very rigorous in my interpretation of the legislation
regarding the minimum depth of soil coverage which was available.
Only where the minimum cover of two feet of soil was available
to the surrounding ground level would I allow a burial to proceed.
In recent years, however it became more and
more obvious that other burial authorities were interpreting the
legislation in a different way to the way I believed the legislation
had been drafted.
The incidence of shallow graves does in my experience
crop up on several occasions each year within each authority,
and the problem causes considerable distress to the bereaved families
involved. Where there was insufficient room available within a
grave then the families were either offered a new grave or the
option to cremate and inter the ashes in the family grave.
Because undertakers working across the South
Wales area were aware that some authorities would allow such burials,
even if insufficient depth of soil coverage was not available,
they then complained most vociferously to those authorities who
would not allow burials to take place.
As it became clear that a major problem was
developing with regards to the interpretation of the legislation.
I asked the Home Office and Welsh Assembly to better clarify the
interpretation of the issues surrounding the depth of soil coverage
I also commissioned a report from the Institute
of Burial and Cremation to outline their views of the interpretation
of the legislation.
I attach copies of this correspondence and a
copy of the technical report to this submission. 
Having received the advice from the National
Assembly and also the Institute of Burial and Cremation, I was
then happy that my interpretation of the legislation was the correct
Following a further problem which occurred in
my former Authority, it was clear that this issue was still a
major problem in some authorities.
The Best Value requirement placed on Local Government
by the Local Government Act of 1999, requires Local Authorities
to compare their services with other service providers. In order
to develop the best value initiative, a cemetery benchmarking
group was set up in South Wales, this group consists of 18 Local
Authorities in Wales and the South West of England.
It therefore seemed appropriate for the question
of the depth of burials to be referred to the benchmarking group,
so that the issue could be further debated on a wider basis. The
issue was raised as an agenda item, and the background papers
attached were circulated to the members of the group.
At the meeting held in November each Local Authority
outlined how they treated the issue of shallow graves.
I would say that more than half of the Authorities
present at the meeting stick rigidly to the two feet of cover.
The remaining Authority's have chosen to interpret the legislation
in such a way that if there is insufficient space available they
then create a brick built chamber to accommodate the coffin and
after burial the chamber is then sealed by cementing a concrete
slab over the coffin.
In the case where a chamber has been created
then some of the Authorities will in some cases reduce the soil
cover down to three inches.
It is clear from the benchmarking meeting that
this issue is a major cause of concern not only to those Authorities
present at the meeting, but also in a national context.
I am also aware that some Authorities are being
sued on a regular basis because of this problem and I now feel
that the only way that this issue can be resolved is for the legislation
to be redrafted to give better clarity to Burial Authorities.
I would be grateful, therefore if the select
committee could further consider this issue as part of the inquiry.
39 Ev not printed. Back