Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Mr Steve O'Donovan (CEM 112)

  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 the country.

  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 allowed.

  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. [39]

  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 interpretation.

  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.

Steve O'Donovan

January 2001

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