Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Association of Burial Authorities and The Phoenix Awards Scheme Organisation (CEM 19)


  Existing cemeteries are not a fit part of civic infrastructure.

  There should be a single, central co-ordinating organisation for burial grounds.

  Reuse of graves can enable cemeteries to be a perpetually sustainable resource.

  Realistic fees should be set nationally and income "ring fenced" to maintain and improve the memorial landscape.

  There should be a national code for safety provisions in cemeteries.

  Parish Councils should have devolved responsibility and funds for cemetery management.

  Any regulations should be enabling, not restrictive, and flexible.

  New building developments should include cemeteries within their financial infrastructure.

  Ownership of cemeteries should be vested in a joint Local Authority/Community Committee.

  Lottery funds could aid making safe and conserving; improving cemetery landscapes for passive recreation; researching reuse and multi-function methodology and designs.

  Lessons should be learned from European Union cemetery practices.


  Burial and memorial grounds cover thousands of acres of urban landscape, or their periphery, which are dedicated to the dead. At the beginning of this millennium with its multi-racial, cultural and religious beliefs, the latter both active and waning, they have become an anachronism. Such vast areas for the dead are lost to the living by virtue of being considered sacred places when they are in reality lost, derelict spaces.

  These spaces can be given back to the living. Subsequent new burial and memorial grounds can be evolved to generate wealth creation by the multiplicity of cross-industry occupations involved, and enhance quality of life for future generations.

Increasing public awareness

  The ageing population, the "third age" is a significant market group with resources and concerns for death care issues contributing towards:

    —  focus on quality and value of funeral services;

    —  demands for greater transparency of costs and quality;

    —  increasing interest/concern over cemetery care;

    —  growth in pre-planning funerals;

    —  re-ritualisation of funeral services.

  These trends are also influenced by deaths among the young from such as AIDS, drug abuse and cancer; and by child and infant deaths which, by virtue of their relative infrequency, have become a significant factor in recent years.

The Scope of Burial Grounds

  Burial Grounds include churchyards and cemeteries run by the Church of England, other Christian denominations such as Catholics, Methodist, Quakers and Baptists, and by Jewish, Muslim and other religious groups; and cemeteries run by Unitary, District and Borough Councils, Parish Councils and Private Enterprises. Also included are memorial sites and buildings for the deposit/commemoration of cremated remains and gardens of remembrance which may be part of a cemetery or churchyard, a crematorium estate or an independent site.

  Burial Grounds occupy some 46,500 acres of land in England. The land in older cemeteries has a high ecological value with flora untreated by ploughing or herbicides. Many sites provide a "green lung" as urbanisation has spread around them.

  Churchyards are believed to be the largest single owner of burial grounds with at least 16,500 acres among the same number of C of E churches; 2,000 Parish Councils control some 10,000 acres; 69 Metropolitan and London Borough Councils, 275 District and Borough Councils and 14 Unitary Authorities another 10,000 acres over some 3,000 sites; privately owned cemeteries control another 10,000 acres.

  An unknown number of churchyards, older cemeteries and large sections of cemeteries have been closed for further burials, some of them for more than 150 years.

  Burial Grounds are the foundation of the "death care industry and services" sector. This sector comprises funeral directors, clergy/officiants, cemeteries, churchyards, crematoria, memorial masonry, floral tributes, coffin manufacture and furnishing, transportation, as well as bereavement counselling and support organisations and allied trades and professions. Burial grounds are a critical resource for the death care industry and for future society.


  Resources for the care and maintenance of cemeteries are generally inadequate. Numbers of old historical sites are under the control of voluntary "Friends" organisations. Many are neglected, dangerous places.

  Modern cemeteries are designed with convenience of administration the main priority, resulting in banal, unsafe, unwanted landscapes.

  Recent surveys have shown that 15 per cent of cemeteries have experienced accidents due to dangerous memorials, and that in general 10 per cent—15 per cent of memorials are in a dangerous condition.


  There is no central co-ordinating organisation for burial grounds. The death care industry and services sector is not recognised as a sector in its own right. The nearest DTI Standard Industrial Classification is Funeral and Related Activities/Retail. Cross-industry issues are much more complex and significant than just the retail of funeral services. Burial and cremation matters are controlled in parts by both the Home Office and the DETR, and by others for specific affairs. The death taboo reinforces the tendency for matters concerning this essential social service to be avoided and neglected.

  Issues are currently handled by (at least):

    —  the DETR: covering much of the relevant statutory law (mostly dating from the mid 19th century); responsible for the finances of local cemetery authorities; the apex of the planning system for new cemeteries or extensions; oversight of management processes for local authorities;

    —  the Home Office: regulating exhumations, whether for forensic or other reasons;

    —  the Health & Safety Executive: the safety of operations in cemeteries both for workers and visitors (eg the stability of memorials);

    —  the General Synod of the Church of England: whose faculty rules affect whom may be buried, the style and content of consecrated parts of cemeteries and non-forensic exhumations in them;

    —  the Department of Trade and Industry: responsibilities for the contractual, business and competition aspects of the provision of burial facilities and services;

    —  the Treasury: has investigated the financial services aspects of pre-payment for burials;

    —  the Department of Social Security: financing of burials for low-income families and so-called "pauper" burials;

    —  the Department of Health: public health implications of cemetery provision and operation;

    —  the Office of National Statistics: registration of deaths and burials.

  Perhaps because of this diverse fragmentation, and/or psychological factors relating to burial, there has been no systematic review of provision for burial, nor any concerted attempt to ensure that either the law, codes or standards of practice or procedures of burial are suitable for the 21st century. Much of what is now done or enforced is based on past practices and needs, without regard to changes in the way of English life that have greatly altered the circumstances, environmental and procedural requirements for burials.

  Psychological factors tend to inhibit proper discussion of policy and a reluctance to question established practices or debate rationally and dispassionately the proper requirements for burial in modern society. It is often said "there are no votes in cemeteries". Local authority cemetery committees are regarded as unimportant, cemetery funding has a low priority in budgets, there is general assumption that the public will not support higher expenditure to make cemeteries a fit part of civic infrastructure. As a consequence there is no sustained pressure on the media, MPs or central agencies to deal regularly and thoroughly with cemetery policy.

  An example of how the lack of a central agency affects cemeteries is the emerging problem of shortage of burial space. Many cemetery authorities believe they will soon run out of space for new burials. This problem can be met by construction of new cemeteries or the reuse of existing cemeteries.

  New construction brings planning problems since sizeable plots in cities are seen as more valuable for property development, and in the countryside they will occupy greenfield sites. These are DETR issues.

  New burials in used spaces means dealing with the remains of previous burials, raising issues of exhumation, public health and respect for human remains. These are principally Home Office issues but are also for the Department of Health and Church bodies. Thus the fundamental policy issue, which incorporates a myriad of detailed points (new construction or reuse) is neither the responsibility of a single agency nor within the ambit of a single Minister of the Crown.

  Similarly there is a very complex legal situation on the liability for injury or damage resulting from dangerous grave memorials. The danger may arise after several decades and can be argued to be the responsibility of one or more of at least three parties. There is no obvious central agency to propose or implement a resolution of the legal difficulties to the benefit of the victims.

  Many graves will be disturbed to accommodate road schemes, buildings, lightening conductors, sewer pipes etc. Environmental Health implications are key elements in exhumation procedures, but because not usually part of the Planning Department an Environmental Health Officer (who is often also the representative of the Health & Safety Executive) may first learn of an exhumation request via the Home Office with the Section 25 exhumation process. The EHO could be by-passed if an exhumation involves consecrated ground under faculty jurisdiction.

  Pet cemeteries fall under the DETR's waste policy division, although some pet burials lie within the curtilage of conventional cemeteries.

  Bearing in mind that each year there are some 200,000 burials at a cost to families of more then £300 million it is an important public issue that the roles of central agencies should be clear; should lead to regular reviews and implementation of suitable policies; and that there should be clear accountability for this ever-present, major function of public bodies.

  The ABA suggests that the DETR should have a separate "disposal of the dead" section, headed by a civil servant of a level commensurate with the responsibilities and reporting to an identified Minister of the Department. All Government responsibilities for burial (and cremation) should be transferred to this section. It is anomalous that a department whose principle function is public order and safety from crime should regulate exhumations and any responsibility of the Home Office for burial matters in particular, should be transferred.

  With a single responsible agency there would be a 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!


Space in existing cemeteries

  The potential for sustainable use of existing cemeteries should be fully exploited with the implementation of a reuse policy where burial space is limited. Where it is desirable for the memorial landscape to be retained, existing memorials and headstones which have been abandoned by their original owners should be sold to new owners who would be required to restore them (as is the practice in some EU countries). New names could be inscribed on the reverse, or on an additional plaque. More grave space can often be found in existing cemeteries by a careful re-plotting of maps, paths and perimeters.

New cemeteries

  Should be located adjacent to catchment areas to reduce travel, encourage local burial in the style of an "urban village", and designed for use as passive leisure parks as well as for disposal of the dead. Rather than vast cemeteries for inhumations and interment of ashes, small intimate parks could be created, in particular for ashes, within the urban environment. All cemeteries should be securely walled. No areas should be consecrated, rather individual graves could be hallowed as and when required. A system of reuse can be achieved if, where possible, all graves are dug to a depth for eight deposits, but only sold for two. In this way a single grave may be resold three times without any disturbance of the remains already interred. Woodland and "natural" burial is not a viable application for cemeteries.

Reuse of graves

  All new/future cemeteries should be designed with sustainable reuse facilities incorporated. Vaults are widely used to facilitate reuse in mainland Europe. Layouts, plantings and structures would reflect the implications of reuse; visual zoning would restrict views so that upheaval caused by reuse would be out of sight. Memorials would also be designed for a limited life span. In Germany for example, sculptured grave monuments are removed after a grave lease period of 10-20 years and often re-sited in the family garden. Rights of burial should be granted for a limited period, say 10 years, which could be renewed on a five or 10 year repurchase plan. If not renewed they could, after following a prescribed protocol, be designated abandoned and may be offered for reuse. Education of the public to the acceptance of reuse would be aided by demonstration areas within the new cemeteries. Surveys have in fact shown the public to be generally in favour of reuse. (Reusing Old Graves—a report on popular British attitudes—by Douglas Davies and Alistair Shaw, published by Shaw & Sons, 1995).

  The disturbance, possible exhumation of remains and spoil pollution are matters which would have to be addressed. Reuse of graves has long been the norm throughout the EU and no plans for the future of cemeteries in the UK should be considered without a study of practices in mainland Europe.

  Planning schemes for future towns and cities should all include facilities for disposal of the dead. This would cover such issues as:

    Land management:

    —  town and country planning;

    —  environmental protection/conservation;

    —  toxic waste disposal;

    —  infrastructure;

    —  horticulture and arboriculture;

    —  parks and leisure.


    —  landscape design;

    —  funerary architecture and memorials;

    —  service buildings;

    —  street and park furniture;

    —  planting.


  A clear distinction must be drawn between large, urban, small, and countryside cemeteries. In smaller and countryside cemeteries it is quite normal for the provision of services to be divided between two types of operators—those who lay out and maintain the cemeteries—and those who carry out the interments. Many, though not all, cemeteries are provided and controlled by local authorities. Grave digging and burials in some rural cemeteries, and interments and memorial erections in almost all cemeteries are carried out by commercial businesses which vary in size, with some large firms operating throughout the country, while many act in a small area and may do most of their business in one cemetery or crematorium.

  Problems in the provision of cemetery services arise from two sources:

  1. The low profile and priority given in local government to cemetery matters leads to constraints on expenditure so that many cemeteries—especially in the parts no longer having new burials—cannot be given adequate maintenance to keep them either in a safe satisfactory condition for public access or in a decent state as a piece of public property. The problem is exacerbated by the split in funding of cemeteries between public expenditure from an authority's budget and charges to individuals for permitting burials (grave rights) or the erection of memorials (memorial rights and permits) and sometimes grave gardening and maintenance. The general belief that funerals are expensive coupled with the fact that fees for cremations, burials and memorials are collected via, and as part of the total bill of the undertaker or mason, means that there is reluctance to levy fees at a proper level, or to review and raise them consistently, even in line with inflation rates. This reluctance is reinforced by the lack of "ring fencing" of cemetery income which can be diverted to other local authority projects rather than to improvements or maintenance of the cemetery.

  2. The other major problem arises from the fact that private businesses are carrying out operations, including in particular the construction of memorials, and often in small cemeteries the digging of graves, which have implications for the safety of the cemetery—both immediately and in the long term—whereas the overall responsibility for safety is upon the owner and controller of the cemetery. In theory this problem can be resolved by the cemetery authority having a complete set of regulations which would ensure safety, but in practice this demands regular inspections of work in progress and regular checks of the state of the cemetery. Without additional resources being allocated to cemetery management it is not possible for all cemetery authorities to carry out that amount of supervision, inspection and checking which will guarantee the observance of safety requirements. In the end the only effective sanction to prevent unsafe practices is for the authority to ban a business from carrying out work in its cemetery. But such a sanction will never be easy to invoke because of the difficulties of proving that the business has been carrying out unsafe operations; because the ban denies the public a full choice of undertakers and masons; and may in some areas create a monopoly.

  Nonetheless the divided responsibility for safe work, and the funding problems, need to be tackled if, in the 21st century, cemeteries are to be managed and provided that are safe, adequate and satisfactory.

  The ABA suggests that:

    1.  The financial issues can be resolved if burial matters are addressed nationally through a single central agency which can ensure that the public and cemetery authorities alike begin to appreciate the policy issues and requirements that must be dealt with for acceptable cemetery provision in the future. There is no need to move away from the public/private expenditure split but both elements must be brought to, and kept at a suitable, viable level.

    2.  There should be a national code (with a clear legal status) covering all the necessary safety provisions for cemeteries: national standards should be prescribed (as for example they are in the German Federal Republic) to ensure the continuing stability and safety of monumental stones. Institutions of higher education should be encouraged to carry out research into cemetery matters and contemplate offering courses leading to qualification that would set and stimulate good national practices.

    3.  With regard to the thousands of countryside cemeteries, responsibility and funding should be devolved to the Parish Councils that are best positioned to serve the needs of their community but inhibited by the working of local government legislation.

    4.  Any regulation should be enabling, not restricting; adjustable to regional variations of custom, climate and ground conditions, and able to adapt to suit changing attitudes and social developments in the future.


  The economic viability of cemeteries is suffering from hidden subsidies delivered over many years by local authorities pursuing a policy aimed to provide a welfare service "free" from cradle to grave. This has resulted in a starving of funds and the creation of mean spirited cemeteries suffering neglect and dilapidation. Individuals prepared to contribute memorial garden features or handsome sculptures are prevented by a policy to exclude any ostentatious display. Consider the contrast with the Victorian cemeteries of which we are so proud. We cannot name a cemetery built in the last century in Britain which can measure anywhere near the achievements of the Victorian necropolises. Well designed and laid out cemeteries would be able to command realistic fees and if operated on a sustainable reuse principle, could continue to be viable into the foreseeable future.

  The developers of community housing and urban environments of all kinds, should be required to include cemetery and memorial parks within the planning for the projects, and they should be designed to be operated on realistic, profitable lines.

  Cemeteries should be managed and held in perpetuity by a form of Guardian Ownership by a community management committee comprising two thirds membership by the Local Authority and one third membership by members of the local community including representation from ethnic minorities. (Example: the Glasgow Necropolis). Funding would be from realistic fees and possible National Lottery contributions. Profits would be ploughed back in the form of amenity features, sculptures and artworks. (Example: Dutch Co-operatives). There would not be religious buildings but multi-purpose structures available for ceremony and ritual including memorial services, namings and weddings.

  National Lottery Funding may also usefully be directed into areas of research into such issues as the design and planning of new cemeteries for reuse and passive recreation, and possible pollution from burial and reuse.


  European Union homogenisation is affecting cemeteries as in other sectors. There is for example, discussion regarding a German safety directive requiring all memorials to be tested to withstand a force of 500 Newtons every year; a requirement to make embalming of bodies compulsory which could add to toxic deposits; defining memorial erection as a trade skill distinct from letter-cutting; health and safety regulations for the use of lifting equipment for memorials; the depth and methods of grave excavation, etc.

  An appreciation of the ABA recommendations for reuse, safe design, low maintenance and attractive, secure, multi-purpose amenity landscaping cannot be gained without looking at cemetery operations in continental Europe, in particular France, Holland and Germany, and also Switzerland and Japan. The ABA has fraternal links with cemetery operators throughout the world, and especially Europe, and would be happy to arrange facility inspection visits.


  The Executive of the Association of Burial Authorities is desirous of accepting an offer to submit oral evidence in support of this memorandum.

December 2000

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