Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Carlisle City Council (CEM 30)


  Community cemeteries are used by the old, and tend to be very low on the priorities of local Councils. This is particularly true in areas where the cemeteries are so poor, and renovation so expensive, that the sites are seen simply as wasted space, and ignored. In Carlisle, this has never been the case, and our cemeteries are attractive and more suited to a "memorial park" classification.

  Firstly, it is necessary to consider how to present cemetery services to the bereaved, or customer. We prefer to offer an integrated service, in which burial, cremation and funeral advice is offered from a single source. This gives customers a single point of contact. It also recognises that many customers are unsure as to whether they want burial or cremation, and they appreciate advice from one point of contact. Indeed, many of our customers choose cremation, but then purchase a small cremated remains grave in a community cemetery nearer their home. As an integrated service, we can offer advice that facilitates this. Some years ago, we recognised that our function was not just management, but had to relate more to outputs. Consequently, we changed our name to "Bereavement Services", and stated our purpose as to "provide meaningful funerals to the community". Cemetery services should be seen as integrated, and not isolated from the wider bereavement picture.

  Taking some of the issues individually, I would comment as follows:

The environment

  We support Local Agenda 21, and the church funded "Living Churchyard" concept, and want to meet objectives set out in the Cumbria Biodiversity Action Plan. Following the introduction of woodland burial, we have gained many skills in environmental understanding. This is because we wanted to compliment the environmental benefits of the woodland graves, by extending conservation into our cemeteries and churchyards. In this regard, we now have five hectares of wildflower (hay) meadow in management, from our total of 60 hectares. We have met environmental targets, such as tawny owls using each site, pignut and orchids growing, and the presence of meadow brown butterfly colonies. With these "indicator" species present, all wildlife has benefited, including birds, bats, insects, lichens and trees. We still await the presence of barn owl, which would compliment many years of planning for this one particular creature.

  This environment includes 1,060 yews, many exotic trees, attractive memorials (some listed), tree carvings, a self guided walk, with free leaflet, and a Spring bulb walk. It creates an ambience that compliments funerals, offering the birdsong, peace and serenity that ideally suits the presence of funerals, and the bereaved. We have located the conservation zones on old graves, without upsetting grave owners or causing any dissent, and we have reduced grounds maintenance costs. An Environmental Management Plan is nearing completion, to ensure continuity into the future.


  Cemeteries are vastly more interesting places than many urban parks, and their wildlife value possibly exceeds that of many country parks. The problem is that to recognise this fact requires interpretation, as well as the appointment and support of skilled staff. This is rarely evident.

  The cemetery design, planting, memorials and inscriptions reflect the local community that uses them. This is just as valid today, as it was in the past. The "greetings card" modern memorial tells as interesting a story as that erected to a civic worthy in the Victorian period. In Carlisle, we have just created teachers notes in order to help schools use these factors as part of citizenship in the "national" curriculum. They study areas of graves for the Victorian rich and paupers, and compare these with "green" woodland graves and conventional lawn type graves.

  Cemetery walk leaflets, and cemetery walks lead by myself, interpret the change in health, mortality, religions, use of language, symbolism, tree favourites over the ages and lichens as air pollution monitors. These walks are popular and also help us to consult with users and potential users. It creates a working environment in which our service can best function in the local community.

  Our walks and talks also cover threats to the environment as they relate to cemeteries and crematoria generally. We talk openly of the fossil fuel use and the air pollution problems of cremation and how better coffins (without chipboard and plastics) and clothing can reduce pollution. We contrast these problems with green burial, which may offer a viable alternative where land is easily available. We also extend into the use of herbicides, how they damage memorials and lead to water pollution, and into protecting memorials generally. Rather than upsetting people, this approach simply proves that we are aware of the problems and are trying to address them. As an example of how effective this is, in a recent question to our Citizens Panel, 98 per cent of the respondents supported a wreath recycling proposal!

  Some issues cannot be viewed as positively. Memorials in our cemeteries, though not as poor as elsewhere, are declining in condition. It is doubtful whether this Council, or any other, will be able to arrest this decline. Some form of heritage funding would obviously help.

  Although cemeteries can play an important social and environmental role, older features such as chapels are by no means defunct. As secular funerals increase, and as small ethnic or religious groups develop, the need for a meeting place in which funerals can take place becomes more, rather than less, important. Such chapels are also less expensive for the bereaved when compared to fees of well over £100.00 if the service is in a C of E church. In Carlisle, we have two chapels, both in good condition, and in regular use. One will shortly be fitted with a new vestry, and toilets, including for the disabled.


  The general condition of Victorian and Edwardian cemeteries is very poor. This is particularly true of buildings, boundary walls and gates and the hidden infrastructure, such as drainage systems. This is due, partly to reducing cemetery income, and partly due to such cemeteries being reduced to "green spaces". When placed in this latter category, and managed directly by parks or grounds staff, the heritage value of the site is rarely understood. Such sites are then seen as unimportant and severely underfunded.

  In recent years, I have viewed cemeteries with derelict chapels, some with a complete absence of trees, others entirely blighted through the application of herbicide. In all of the sites, such management is also attended by poor memorial safety, and clear signs that the staff lack the necessary skills to manage effectively.

  Grant aid of some form to help improve chapels and other parts of the infrastructure would be beneficial. In addition, some government initiative to raise the profile of cemeteries would help.


  The Government has ignored their responsibility on this issue for decades. In particular, the burial of bodies in private gardens has been occurring for some time and is clearly causing public offence. In addition, most winters there are adverse media reports about delays to funerals during the winter, especially during flu epidemics. In addition, many authorities have raised burial costs to extortionate levels, penalising those people who have religious or other reasons to prefer burial. In many areas, burial space is no longer available and choice for the bereaved is therefore reduced. It is also worth noting that perhaps 30 private cemeteries (woodland burial grounds!) have opened in the past few years. Some of these have already completed 400 or more burials. These are completely unregulated, as private cemetery legislation has been repealed, and they are not inspected. It is only a matter of time before serious problems arise. Indeed, at least two of these sites have already had a significant management problem. Private sites do not have the long term stability and transparency of local authority sites.

  These private sites have copied the woodland concept which I introduced at Carlisle in 1993.

  The Government should appoint a Minister for cemeteries and crematoria (or for the bereaved) and should issue minimum national standards. A cemetery inspection process should be organised and/or cemeteries should be forced to submit to assessment schemes organised by the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration.

  It also needs to be recognised that apart from cemeteries and crematoria, representation for the bereaved generally is very poor. Consumer protection is weak and because death is not given prominence by the Government, it remains a taboo subject for many. In addition, cemeteries need a long term strategic approach, both on funding and management. Decisions on grave re-use, for instance, cause controversy and will naturally be avoided by many officers and elected members, particularly if they are just concerned with the immediate future, or with re-election.

  I would also point out that although we work hard in local Government to both recognise environmental problems and reduce their impact, we get little help from either government or funeral directing. For instance, the construction and content of coffins is impossible to monitor and the large funeral directing concerns constantly bring in new models. The use of plastic fittings and liners is expanding, as is unnecessary embalming. These are all aspects which almost certainly will cause us grave re-use problems in the future. Not only does funeral directing show little concern for helping us, they also cloud the issues to the bereaved, often obstruct "green" funerals, and have little or no transparency as regards their impact on the environment. Although they are the polluters, it seems we have to pay through pollution arrestment costs! Few of us, as mere Council employees, would dare to challenge these issues with the private sector.

  In 1983, I worked hard to get local hospitals to meet minimum standards for stillbirth burial ie individual burial, and a service for each child. Subsequently, they agreed to inter all foetal deaths (16-24 weeks) with us. All attempts to get them to pass all foetal remains to us have failed miserably, even though we will keep charges very low. They continue to go to a waste incinerator, in Cheshire I believe. We know that many mothers return to hospitals to ask what happened to these remains, which they ignored at the time of the loss or abortion, and they are upset at being told the truth. Had there been a national standard utilising services such as our own, the mothers would have had a place to visit, and could have used the memorial services we offer. This is a further example of archaic practice, which government could easily stop. It is still a matter of concern that foetal remains, prior to 16 weeks, and where the mother decides against a funeral, are still sent to clinical waste. They should be cremated at local crematoria. In a similar vein, pauper funerals continue to take place, without any national standard. Some years ago, a government spokesman said that funerals should occur in a similar manner to conventional funerals. In reality, this does not occur, and "paupers" receive a lesser service. Similarly, funerals completed by local authorities (bodies found exposed, or with no kin) do not meet any specified standards, even though the deceased may have left sufficient finds for a conventional funeral. Until a Government minister takes responsibility for such issues, I cannot see how matters will improve.


  The problem for cemeteries is twofold, firstly with historical maintenance costs and secondly, on the provision of new land.

  With regard to historical maintenance costs, most private cemeteries closed down due to this increasing burden. It is essential that cemeteries are given legislation to enable them to be sustainable. If this occurred, and private cemeteries were viable, it might at least introduce wider provision, and some competitive element. To achieve this requires a limitation to grave rights, say a maximum 50 years, and the legislation to allow grave re-use after, say, 100 years. This would allow grave right sales for an initial period, followed by periodic payments for continuing maintenance. Then, when most graves are abandoned by families, at 100 years, lift and deepen could occur, and the grave be reused. This is similar to techniques used in Europe, and replicates the churchyard regime that existed in the UK for perhaps a thousand years. This will keep the cemetery to a sustainable size, and control maintenance costs.

  Many cemetery authorities also maintain churchyards closed by Order in Council. In Carlisle, we have 10 such churchyards. If these churchyards could be reused, perhaps funded by the local authority and not the church, it would offer new, neighbourhood locations for further burial.

  The use of new land for cemeteries ought to satisfy environmental and sustainability conditions. Firstly, the authority should confirm that grave reuse has been introduced (assuming legislation is passed), and secondly that woodland burial, or some other form of low cost maintenance grave, has been introduced. These issues will meet the needs of Local Agenda 21. Only then should new land be given planning approval. This land will need to be on the outskirts of urban development, as it is not available elsewhere. The development of the new cemetery should also meet more stringent environmental conditions, particularly on tree cover, water pollution and the use of herbicides and integrated leisure use.


  The absence of an obligatory standard for cemeteries and crematoria is a national disgrace. As an authority, we have adopted the IBCA Charter for the Bereaved, which I wrote in 1997. The Charter rights are the minimum service, and we now provide many of the targets identified in the document. This includes six grave options, including woodland burial, the provision of bio-degradable coffins and a "re-usable" coffin, environmental cremation and a Funeral Advisory Service. This latter service includes 21 leaflets, giving every detail necessary to allow people to complete a funeral, both with and without a funeral director.

  Our service proves that the bereaved desire greater choice over funerals, but they often fail to obtain what they want elsewhere in the UK. In Carlisle, we are contacted regularly by people from elsewhere in the UK needing cardboard coffins, seeking woodland burial, and less formal funerals. In this regard, most commercial funeral directing seeks to market more expensive coffins, and market funerals along the American model. Cemeteries should, at the very least, offer services that allow people to break the commercial monopoly, if they so desire. Woodland burial, for instance, meets this need.

  Woodland burial utilises a tree to mark the grave, and because it is less formal (often top hats and black dress are opposed by the bereaved), it costs much less. For instance, many people use the funeral directors estate car rather than the hearse. This informality also validates the use of an inexpensive bio-degradable coffin, which might otherwise seem cheap when used on a conventional burial. We do offer a memorial, in the form of a bronze plaque placed in the "sheepfold" within the woodland site. Woodland burial is chosen for many reasons. These include the fact that it removes the need to visit and care for the grave and because of the forest appearance, makes graves uniform and removes status and other social influences. Many single people, who would have nobody to care for their grave, choose it for these reasons.

  It is worth noting that in Carlisle, after we introduced "green" woodland burial, we approached the local National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) to see if they would meet requests for cardboard coffins from users. They refused, and we ultimately purchased such coffins and supplied them to the public. We now offer at least six budget priced coffins and we sell about 60 each year, many of them to funeral directors. In the meantime, woodland grave sales have increased to 33 per cent of all new graves and this figure continues to rise. The psychological approach of users, and the marketing of woodland burial is something we understand and of which most funeral directors are entirely ignorant. Indeed, some funeral directors in this area still refuse to use cardboard coffins and make it difficult for the bereaved to have informal funerals.

  The long term impact of these "green" services is the revitalisation of cemeteries, and the potential for profitable operation. Our current deficit arises because we have sold, and continue to sell, lawn graves too cheaply for the period involved. This is because the costs need to be calculated over the 50 year term during which we guarantee a specific maintenance standard. The loss is estimated at £783.00 per grave over the period 1999-2049. This loss is further highlighted by the fact that where people choose woodland burial, which carries a much less onerous maintenance liability, the Council makes an estimated profit of approximately £100.00 per grave over the same period. Some of this income arises through coffin sales, and the sale of bronze plaques in the sheepfold. This income is fundamental in ensuring that the cemetery is maintained as a viable business in the future.

  It is also essential that income is reserved to meet future grave maintenance, and to replace the land used for burial. This meets the current Audit Commission risk-based approach to good management.

  We have recently had a report approved by our controlling committee in order to create a sustainable cemetery service. This new policy, approved only in draft form will focus on five objectives:

    1.  Increasing fees in real terms.

    2.  Applying real cost fees for intensively maintained lawn graves.

    3.  Increasing income in real terms ie woodland burial and memorial sales.

    4.  Increasing cremation supplements to cover cemetery deficits.

    5.  Reducing maintenance standards on old graves via conservation.

  This policy, with grave reuse added in time, will enable us to maintain a burial service without raising fees beyond the reach of the poor.

  It is also essential that local authorities be given stronger trading powers. We ought to be able to provide coffins and memorials without the threat of being taken to judicial review by the private sector. I am also aware that many people would prefer that we offered a no-frills direct funeral service. This would entail the local authority contracting a local funeral director to collect bodies, and simply move them directly to refrigeration at our crematorium or cemetery. We would then arrange the documentation, and service, and charge these costs directly to the bereaved. Such funerals already take place, informally, and work extremely well. They are low cost, because they exclude the hearse and cortege, body viewing and embalming. They also allow the cemetery or crematorium to take a greater share of the funeral income, and ensure their survival. A number of people would utilise this type of service, given the opportunity. It also expands options, without restricting the right of people to continue with conventional funeral arrangements, if they so prefer.


  Much of the detail already given relates to the economic viability of cemeteries, and I will not add to this. National Lottery funding would be extremely useful, as no other form of funding seems available. Any form of funding that might help Victorian and Edwardian cemeteries, and the buildings and memorials contained within, would be extremely valuable. It is worth noting that such cemeteries and structures are falling apart throughout the country. In Venice, and perhaps elsewhere in Europe, cemetery authorities are able to re-sell old and valuable memorials, so that they and the graves they lie upon, can be renovated and reused. I regret that we seem to prefer deterioration and the complete loss of such valuable features.

  I was interested to note that in the current government initiative for "cultural strategies", death, cemeteries and crematoria was missing. It appears that cemeteries must continue to receive lesser treatment than parks, libraries, museums and the like.


  To conclude, it is important to consider funeral costs, and the impact cemeteries and crematoria can make on these. Some people now freely choose to reuse Victorian "paupers" graves, which we call "recycled", in the old parts of our cemeteries. Sometimes these are single people, with no family, or just environmentally conscious individuals. They can save up to £900.00 on conventional burial costs (£2,000.00 including a memorial). The other choices, such as woodland burial, and environmental cremation, or independent options, are saving people sums of between £250.00 and £1,000.00 on their funeral costs. Overall, at least a quarter of a million pounds has been left in the community, and not spent on funerals. This is because we have been innovative, and we have given people the right to choose. If cemeteries are to advance, they must throw off the fustiness of the past, and offer services which people want. They must also challenge thinking and allow people in the community to develop psychological views on death that meet the "green" and sustainable approach, which challenge current commercial funeral directing. At the very least, this approach is conducive to "Best Value" and the benefits the Government is seeking.

Ken West

Bereavement Services Manager

December 2000

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 29 March 2001