Memorandum by the Bristol General Cemetery
Company (CEM 54)
1. PURPOSE OF
1.1 To enlighten the Environment Sub-committee
as to this most famous company in the light of knowingly misleading
statements in the media and by others who sadly do know better
and thereby on the industry generally from the fresh viewpoint
of newcomers, albeit very experienced commercially generally.
1.2 By publicly enlightening a body of the
Sub-committee's standing of the true position, to achieve a just
resolution for the benefit of all affected, too long delayed.
2. SUMMARY OF
2.1 The death business is largely extremely
profitable, which affects attitudes both the public and private
sectors, although it must be recognised that the taboos and the
actual handling of the dead cause it to be a matter most of us
wish to avoid.
2.2 Media attention, largely publishing
only bad news does not help. Soft targets get lurid headlines
although the small print sometimes achieves a better balance.
3. THE PROBLEM
Failure, at all levels locally and nationally,
to recognise that this Statutory Authority cannot legally replace
its cremation income lost by installation of excess capacity by
an all-powerful municipal competitor, that the position would
be unchanged whoever owned shares making a campaign of personal
vilification pointless. The latter paradoxically has been against
those solely coping with this problem not of their making and
has exacerbated the distress caused to very many affected persons.
4. A SIGNIFICANT
4.1 There was, before cremations ceased
(due to municipal competition) a been total lack of assistance
or interest from the clergy and religious bodies of all denominations,
although well-publicised in advance, this despite a great deal
of consecrated land in Arnos Vale Cemetery. The only approach
since has been very specific with no recognition of the overall
4.2 A direct approach for help to the Bishop
of Bristol following a bitterly unjust and ignorant letter from
a C of E parish resulted in an unclerically robust rejection.
4.3 It is perhaps appropriate that the pavement
on the Arnos Vale Cemetery side of the A4 Bath Road ceases as
it reaches Arnos Vale, enabling the clergy to pass by on the other
5. BRIEF HISTORY
5.1 Although laid out originally as a zoo,
what are now known as the beautiful Victorian Arcadian Gardens
were promoted as a cemetery outside the borders of Bristol City
when the church graveyards were becoming dangerously full due
to epidemics of malaria and similar. After the first Bristol Cemetery
Act 1837 the two chapels and two entrance lodge gatehouses were
constructed in a paladian style and are now all Listed Grade 2*.
This area is approximately 17 acres and contains all bar one of
the Listed items, mainly consisting of memorials and tombs, of
which of the Rajah Roy Ramahoun, founder of Indian democratic
and humanitarian thought, is amongst the best known. Whilst a
prime example of funereal and memorial gardens, they are of specialised
appeal and a majority view might be that they are less significant
than a Cistercian Abbey or a major public building.
5.2 At first, grave purchasers chose their
own spot reflected in a haphazard layout but very soon a disciplinary
approach was adopted for both commercial and maintenance benefits,
even if unattractive. Two further Acts of Parliament, 1880 and
1891, added further land to bring the total to 45 acres today.
There are over 40,000 graves containing over 500,000 deceased,
some in significant tombs, others having been merely tipped into
what are known as paupers' graves.
5.3 In 1926, a fourth Bristol Cemetery act
added the legal authority to cremate and up to seven furnaces
were commissioned, which served by four chapels, gave a final
capacity of up to 10,000 cremations p.a., a total cremated now
more than 100,000.
5.4 Towards the end of the 1960s three major
events occurred. First, it became apparent that the graveyard
at the then rate of burial would soon reach capacity, but that
cremations were rising rapidly in popularity compared with burials
and Bristol Council installed two crematoria of their own, of
which the first might possibly have been justified geographically
and politically. The second had neither justification and was
the ultimate death knell of the companies' cremation business.
5.5 A downward spiral of income followed
by a lower standard of service occurred. Bristol City Council
being a commercial competitor as well as the planning authority
was also the enforcement agency under the Health and Safety Acts
and especially the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The Council
refused Interim Permission to Cremate under the latter Act forcing
the Company to Appeal which it won without qualification, although
at heavy cost of cash and managerial time. The knowledge also
unsettled funeral directors who in practice are the company's
customers, rather than the public, and by the time the appeal
succeeded, the damage was done.
5.6 The downward spiral continued until
the company had insufficient means to meet the requirements of
that Act for the installation of new machinery, cremations stopping
on 31 March 1998.
5.7 The Council today receives an income
in excess of £1 million pa as a result of these actions.
6. RECENT EVENTS
6.1 As stated above, cremations ceased on
31 March 1998 and thus deprived the company of the bulk of its
already diminished income and was thus in danger of breaching
the criminal law concerning trading whilst unable to meet liabilities.
Therefore the office was closed and the remaining staff made redundant
6.2 In anticipation, some months prior to
this problem, the company wrote to the Leader of the Council seeking
a meeting to discuss the future and to allow him to see the position
from the company's side but no reply was received. Instead he
referred the matter to the Planning Directorate rather than either
to the Chief Executive as the matter covered several directorates
or to Health & Safety who were responsible for the disposal
of the dead in the City. The Planning Directorate concentrated
solely upon the problems of the listed buildings and similar and
virtually no consideration was given to the disposal of the dead,
the only legal source of this Statutory Authority's income.
6.3 The Planning Directorate appointed as
its consultant an architect who had no personal knowledge, or
at all, of the death business and who chosedespite a cordial
invitationnot even to meet the Managers of the company.
Unsurprisingly the expensive report partially paid by English
Heritage and English Partnerships from national funds, contributed
little to an overall resolution of the problem and concentrated
mainly on fixing a very low price for any purchase by the Council,
whether by agreement or by Compulsory Purchase.
6.4 It is significant that this report and
subsequent similar publications openly considered the prospect
of a planning consent for a residential development, although
the company has never put in an application for such, nor has
one ever been in preparation. This will be dealt with in detail
6.5 The main error in this report in relation
to a potential development was the cost of graveyard clearance
for which the consultant ignored the company's information that
it had a direct very recent quotation and he clearly misunderstood
how such an important matter would be tackled.
6.6 There has been a totallyand in
the company's view wilfulmisleading publicity campaign
relating to the events of 31 March 1998, the date of cremations
ceasing. Prior to this and after the letter to the Council Leader,
the company made no secret of the future problems but left the
door truly open in stating that whilst closure of the cemetery
was a possibility, this would only become inevitable if no action
was taken to keep it open. The position was notably disadvantaged
by both media attention and the so-called "Friends"
group (below). As a result, hysteria was whipped up and on that
date what can only be described as a howling mob descended upon
the cemetery and besieged the directors and staff in the offices
accommodated in one of the lodge gatehouses.
6.7 Although the police arrived they were
totally ineffectual, spending most of the time inside the lodge,
making no attempt to dispel the crowd of which they were clearly
frightened. In the end the Senior Officer present advised the
managers to make their escape, barely providing sufficient cover
for this and not preventing members of the mob kicking a car,
about which the police took no action. Subsequently the mob took
over, padlocking the gates and opening them at their will, claiming
credit for the opening, when in fact the company had never physically
shut them or threatened to do so.
7. THE ROLE
7.1 As set out above, Bristol Council opened
unnecessarily fresh crematoria outwardly for political considerations,
that of following the political philosophy of its era of cradle
to the grave care. In the light of its subsequent actions, it
is doubtful whether this was the sole motive and now that the
income is running in excess of £1 million pa whether further
revenues at the private sector's expense and to boost headcounts
in various departments is now more attractive.
7.2 Whilst outwardly respectable, the desire
to increase public open space at the expense of a what is a private
working graveyard and without entering the proper planning procedures
for a change of user, is being used to disguise thinly an attempt
to acquire a valuable 45 acre freehold estate near the centre
of Bristol with the opportunity, in due course, to utilise the
valuable buildings as a cheap way to fulfil other objectives.
Gaining such an important site at very low or zero cost also adds
to the powerplay and headcounts of various directorates coupled
with the opportunity to dispense favours such as consultancy contracts.
7.3 In pursuit of the above it has been
noted that the Council operates in three capacitiesthe
Planning Authority, an enforcement agency under the Environment
and Health & Safety legislation and as a commercial competitor.
It appears to be no cause for query or anxiety, that the implementation
of the first two of those authorities vastly benefits the third.
A very senior Councillor freely admitted that the Council's profit
from its own activities in this area benefited their own cemeteries
with no thought being given to the greater pre-eminence of Arnos
7.4 Despite, as noted above, Bristol Council
having led this matter through its planning directorate with emphasis
on the Arcadian Gardens and Listed items, and the clear opportunity
to obtain maximum grant/lottery aid, there has only been a muffled
and confused attempt to recognise there will be a substantial
shortfall both on the initial capital for restoration and later
income need for maintenance and especially security. This will
be referred to below under heading "National Government"
and the "Adjournment Debate". This question has been
posed many times especially by the company's respectable consultants
during the Deposit Plan proposals but at no time has there been
a clear or any attempt to answer the question.
7.5 The reason for there being no answer
to the question of a source of the shortfall referred to in the
preceding paragraph is that it produces only the alternatives
which are equally uncomfortable for Bristol City Councilit
can only come from the Council itself or it being made attractive
for private sector investment by an attractive planning consent.
7.4 Whilst spuriously claiming that the
company refuses to negotiate and endeavouring to make a personal
issue of matters which would be unchanged whoever owned the company's
shares, at all times there has been a refusal by the Council to
meet for reasonable negotiation to resolve matters; co-operation
between the Council and the company is the only way forward, against
which there can be no argument of the least validity.
8. THE ROLE
8.1 Arnos Vale Cemetery crosses no less
than five government departments:
Department of Culture, Media and Sport;
Defence (for the Commonwealth War Graves); and
Foreign & Commonwealth Office (due to the
impact of the Rajah Roy tomb upon millions of his followers here
and in India.)
8.2 An approach to the Cabinet Secretary
to co-ordinate these five ministries met with a rebuff on the
grounds that it could not intervene (apparently unable to distinguish
between co-ordination and intervention).
8.3 The Home Office must bear the brunt
of the failure of national government through being responsible
both for the disposal of the dead and for law and order (apart
from that particularly falling to the Lord Chancellor). It has
shown a marked indifference to almost every topic upon which it
is approached. The matters on which they have turned their back
include bereaved persons, whose distress has been whipped up by
the media and the so-called "Friends" group, who actually
exhumed and removed the ashes of their departed loved ones, technically
a crime but surely a matter which would cause the greatest concern.
The sponsorship of the "Arnos Vale Army" by the local
press and its treatment with lurid headlines was agreed to fall
within the definition of criminal libel. These and other matters
including the mob rule referred to previously brought simply the
terse comment "tell the police".
8.4 Most recently there has been an increase
in bias towards the Council of which the most marked example has
been invocation of Guidance rules relating to the records of closed
crematoria. Whilst apparently agreeing that those Rules might
well apply more to a crematorium closed on a sale or the cessation
of the whole company, they have been used to deprive the Company
of records used regularly to conduct searches mainly for those
who need the information for genuine reasons eg to scatter recent
ashes in the same place as a previous deceased. This was accompanied
by a threat under a Victorian Forgery Act involving life imprisonment
for deterioration of burial records against the current management
who in practice have been solely responsible for a generation
to take any positive action to preserve Arnos Vale Cemetery, including
8.5 The Departments of Culture Media and
Sport became entrapped due to being responsible for English Heritage
who had been successfully lobbied due to the emphasis of Bristol
City Council on the "heritage site" in Arnos Vale Cemetery.
English Heritage played a devious hand culminating in the then
Chairman Sir Jocelyn Stevens refusing to meet the company's representatives
despite it being clearly shown that he had not been given the
true picture by his subordinates. In the Adjournment Debate (next
below) then Minister Tony Banks stated clearly that it was the
government's view that human safety should be dealt equally with
other issues, acknowledging that deaths, including those of children,
had occurred in virtually identical graveyards. The DETR has taken
no notice of this point.
9. THE ADJOURNMENT
The Sub-committee is referred to Hansard reporting
the debate on 21 May 1998 moved by Mrs J Corston MP. A detailed
rebuttal and commentary was made to Tony Banks and the DETR, available
to the Sub-committee, with subsequent concentration on the human
safety aspect mentioned above. We do not propose to repeat this
rebuttal of what we regard as a wholly unwarranted and unfair
attack save to draw attention to one manifestly false statement
which devalues the whole debate. Mrs Corston refers twice to an
entry in the Investors Chronicle as an "advertisment"
by our parent company Arnos Village plc whereas the merest glance
of that entry shows it, with others alongside for different companies,
plainly to be journalistic comment over which no company has controlexactly
the same as for political matters. Mrs Corston is highly experienced
and educated (Barrister of the Inner Temple) and we do not regard
this as an innocent mistake, rather adding to the campaign of
personal vilification to support those who seek to gain control
of the valuable 45 acre estate of Arnos Vale Cemetery for nil
or derisory consideration.
10. PROFIT AND
9.1 Inevitably, the query must come into
minds as to whether and why profit might be taken from a situation
such as Arnos Vale Cemetery which brings so much distress to so
many. In this particular case no true profit figure can apply
without taking into account the fact that the existing owners
have received no pay for over 15 years' unremitting hard work,
nor any return on capital, in unpleasant circumstances made unnecessarily
more so by the equally unremitting and unpleasant antagonism of
Bristol City Council and its supporters manifestly misdescribed
as the "friends of Arnos Vale", to whom physical violence
is no stranger in their paranoid attempts to obtain involvement
with no beneficial contribution in sight.
9.2 In considering profitability, what has
to be taken into account is the previously related fact that Bristol
City Council of its own volition with no compulsion whatsoever
entered the market for cremations in the knowledge that the finite
extent of that market is limited by the numbers of deceased
one death, one burial is the old axiom and therefore either
knowingly or negligently embarked on a course which could only
in the ultimate adversely badly affect Arnos Vale Cemetery.
9.3 Can Arnos Vale ever be profitable? In
its exact present form, no. However, the sheer size of the estate
and the accommodation available could be attractive for concepts
such as the "one stop" funeral service ie from the time
the person is dying all the way through the necessary procedures
until refreshment on the way out (now the modern trend). However,
even the unsatisfactory report of the Council's own consultant
points out that the Council would lose revenue if the cremation
activity of Arnos Vale were revived.
9.4 Equally, the original Victorian core
could be used partially for the decreasing burial activity with
putting the buildings to other uses.
11. IS THERE
NOunless the main players headed by Bristol
City Council, who must show responsible leadership, join with
us and the appropriate government departments to face the facts
set out herein with a determination to succeed and end the distress
caused to so many innocent persons unable to help themselves.
Of the main players, the inactivity by the clergy
to a problem clearly obvious for many years is morally contemptible.
We cannot alter the facts which are
as difficult for us as for all other affected persons and bodies,
which facts will remain unaltered whoever owns Arnos Vale Cemetery.
The main fact is that the cremation
business is unique in that supply of deceased cannot be expanded
to meet excess capacity which therefore can only cause the weakest
In this case the weakestArnos
Vale Cemeteryaffects the greatest number, the relatives
and descendants of nearly one million deceased, including 500
Commonwealth War Graves, of whom two are holders of the Victoria
Cross. To this must be added the millions who revere the memory
of Raja Roy Ramahoun.
Bristol City Council's denial that
it seeks to purchase Arnos Vale Cemetery for nil or derisory consideration
is rebutted by their own recent offer of £1. Any one of several
buildings is self-evidently worth many thousand times that sum.
The Council's refusal to accompany
any offer of purchase with clear cut schemes for the future operation
of Arnos Vale Cemetery with equally clear funding proclaims a
policy of opportunistic fudge, endorsed by their refusal and that
of their consultants even to meet.
The consideration of this issue by the sub-committee
may well be the catalyst to achieve a positive resolution. We
hope and pray this will be the case.