Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by S L Yates, Superintendent and Registrar (Epsom Cemetery) (CEM 62)


  Prior to the industrial revolution the provision of burial grounds was almost entirely the responsibility of the church. As people began moving from the rural areas seeking work in mills and factories etc. the churchyards in those areas soon became literally full to overflowing. This forced parliament between the years 1852-1906 to pass 15 Burial Acts, these Acts gave powers to District, Borough and Parish Councils to become Burial Authorities. Most of these Acts have now been repealed and replaced by The Local Government Act 1972, with cemeteries being provided under the provision of The Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977. A number of private cemeteries were opened by far sighted persons and these were regulated by The Cemeteries Clauses Act 1847. This Act is still in force.


  The then named Epsom Urban District Council formed its own Burial Board in 1860 and sought the acquisition of land on which to establish a cemetery. The site chosen was an area bordered by the formally named Loop Road, Middle Downs Road, and Lower Downs Road.

  The land stretching right up to Epsom Downs was designated for cemetery use.

  The area was owned by Lord Rosebery but was given under caveat to the council together with other areas for cemetery and recreational use.

  Lord Rosebery lived at a house called the Ladas and was determined not to allow development of any of the areas surrounding his home in Chalk Lane, Epsom. Lord Rosebery succeeded Gladstone as Prime Minister in 1904 but was only in office for one year. After this period he concentrated his efforts in local government.

  The original site was only about four acres but as only five interments were carried out in the first year of opening, one can only assume that the site was considered sufficient at that time.

  The twin chapels, the lodge and the main gate were designed by William Young and building started in the late 1860s. Sixty thousand tons of Kentish Rag Stone was used in the construction of the perimeter walls, chapels and lodge. The stone was brought by rail to the old station in Upper High Street and transported by horse and cart to the site. I am informed that the "Drayman" was paid twopence a load.

  In 1923 space was running out and the council approached Lord Rosebery for more land. However his Lordship was so incensed that the council had allowed a game of football to be played on Rosebery Park that he charged the council £2000 for the land then gave the money to charity.

  The cemetery has been extended at regular intervals since until the last tranche in 1995 and now covers an area of approximately 24 acres. We still are able to add an additional four acres should the need arise.

  The first burial took place on the 15 June 1871, the deceased, Elizabeth Dorling was the wife of the Reverend Henry Dorling who was the Clerk to Epsom Racecourse.

  Henry Dorling paid seven pounds, seven shillings and six pence for the grave space. The cost of an ordinary space at that time would have been one pound eleven shillings and six pence with the cost of interment at a princely three shillings and six pence.

  The following year (1872) 76 burials took place and the numbers have steadily increased until the present day when we average approximately 250 burials per year. In the early years the wealthy chose to have brick vaults built in the front row spaces and some having whole areas enclosed.

  Some would argue that the elaborate memorials reflected the vanity of the living rather than the honour of the dead. Many of the prominent families of Epsom chose the site as their final resting-place.

  Lord Russell of Killoween and other members of his family including Bertrand Russell the philosopher are buried here in Epsom, the rich, the famous, the infamous and the ordinary, we are all equal in death.

  In the beginning it was unusual for ordinary people to purchase a grave space, but the law allowed people of the same family to be buried in that space providing they died within a period of 14 years. These were referred to as "Common Graves". The church used a similar system.

  For those unfortunates who dies intestate a "Public or Paupers" grave was deemed to become their last resting place, it was the practice in Epsom to bury up to 13 adults in one grave space, this meant digging to a depth of 25 feet.

  We still have "Public" graves but now restrict the number of interments to four. Some of the older "Public" graves contain the bodies of 45 children.

  This can be quite upsetting for relatives who come to trace their family trees.


  Cemeteries tend to be the "Cinderella" of services when it comes to local government, with more emphasis being put into the provision of sports facilities, shopping malls, parks and gardens etc. Many of my colleagues feel that the service should be run under its own or a national committee rather than being tacked onto the end of some other department such as Technical Services, Environmental Health etc. I would tend to agree with this.

  Many cemeteries dating from the Victorian era have been allowed due to the lack of funds or insight to fall into disrepair, new Health and Safety Recommendations regarding memorial safety will require local authorities to make funds available to rectify the situation. This has resulted in high profile cases where councils have disposed of the sites.

  The cemetery should be regarded as an asset rather than a liability, they should not be allowed to slip into disrepair or become vandalised. The sites are steeped in local history, the memorials, although not to everyone's taste reflect a craftsmanship now largely lost. An opportunity still exists especially in urban areas, to turn a dilapidated site into an area of peace and tranquillity. With just a little thought and planning it is possible to create a small oasis in a mad world.


  With cash strapped councils the funding for cemeteries is being made more difficult when a churchyard is closed by orders and the costs for "keeping in good order" is then transferred to the local authority. The term keeping in good order is open to question and does this apply to the memorials? Some recent tragic events have highlighted the need for the safety of memorials to be checked regularly. With the church retaining ownership of the land and little or no records existing to show who owns the memorial, the question of responsibility raises its ugly head. There is an urgent need nationally to clarify the position, to set a recognised standard of maintenance and to establish a funding procedure. It is felt generally that the ratepayers of the borough should not have to meet these costs. Funding for cemeteries can be partly offset by income raised through the sale of grave spaces and interment fees; this of course is not the case in closed churchyards.


  With land (particularly in the south) at a premium and the demand for more housing, land for cemetery use becomes less of a priority. Should new sites not be an option then other ways of maintaining and providing the service will need to be investigated.


  The government and local authorities will need to embark on a program of re-education. A great number of people, especially the elderly are deeply suspicious of the cremation process, silly stories abound about what actually happens once the coffin has disappeared from view. The costs that have tended to increase lately should be reviewed in order to make it more financially attractive. People must be convinced that the service will be carried out with all due reverence and dignity and closely regulated. I am also aware that in our multicultural society this may prove unacceptable to many sections of our community. Some religious groups regard committal to the flames as being an insult to the dead.

  In a democracy the people should be allowed to decide, and I would not be an advocate of compulsory cremation. For those who insist on earthen burial, it should be available, however they must be prepared to bear the full cost.

  Some may consider that the private sector should or could provide this essential service, I would argue that if the private sector is to take over all of the functions formally provided by councils, then why a council?

  The costs of running a municipal cemetery have always been subsidised by the ratepayers. With the private sector, profit can take precedence over service, people will have less choice and market forces will dictate prices.

  With the majority of crematoria now in the hands of the private sector and the likelihood of cemeteries following suit, there are fears that the service is being monopolised by the big players. Codes of practice are in place but are the private sector capable of policing themselves? Best Value may show otherwise.


  Many of our "industry" believe that the answer must lie in the reuse of graves and/or in better management of existing space. It is wasteful to dig a grave for one person only, policy should indicate that all new graves be dug to accommodate four persons. In this manner you are providing for the future. Terms of Grant should be reduced; this would enable spaces that have not been filled to capacity to be used for further interments and generate more income.

  A more radical approach would be to allow authorities after 75 years from the last burial, to exhume and cremate the remains and then re-bury them at the maximum depth.

  This would require a change in the law, however it is felt that the present confusing laws of burial and cremation need to be looked at again and revised. Changes in the systems would allow local authorities to review policy on closed churchyards; this could result in more space being made available.

  The advent of Compulsory Competitive Tendering in the late eighties has in many cases meant that the cost of grounds maintenance has increased. People were thrust into writing specifications that had very little experience of what was required or an understanding of the financial implications. Some authorities believed that the corporate approach was best and the cemeteries were grouped together with other services of a similar nature. Many contracts are based on Bills of Quantity or Schedules of Rates instead of being a quality document. In some cases history dictated the levels of service (eg we have always done it this way).

  The role of the manager has changed radically over the last few years, many now have to manage and monitor a contract as well. It is vital that any contract will include clauses relating to the proficiency of persons engaged on grave digging/groundwork's.

  Contracts of this type need to be reviewed and where necessary re-negotiated to bring down costs.

  It is not difficult given a little thought to put together an acceptable standard of maintenance, that is both aesthetically pleasing as well as being cost effective. A visit to the CWGC Cemeteries of Northern France and Belgium proves this point.

  One of the most important aspects of the service are the persons actively engaged on service delivery, there are no rehearsals in this job, and it has to be right every time. Experience has shown that many have found themselves running a cemetery simply because their own position had become redundant. It may well have been a case of take on the new role or be unemployed.


  Superintendents/Managers must receive the proper training and training budgets must be made available. The Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration go a long way to meet this need, however I know that many students pay their own fees. Not all councils are prepared to pay the subscriptions for their staff to become members of any relevant institutions or associations and this can result in up to date information/procedures not being available to the staff concerned.

Central government should fulfil and fund this function

  All cemetery/crematoria Managers/Superintendents should be able to demonstrate a level of competency in both cemetery management and law before being appointed. The new Health and Safety at Work Act coupled with Risk Assessments etc. need to be clearly understood.

  A recognised qualification and perhaps a career structure may go a long way to encourage higher quality personnel into the service.

There needs to be a government inspectorate with powers to act

  A referral system should be in place if a Manager/Superintendent needs advice. In many cases because of cut backs within an authority it can be difficult to obtain the answer/advice on a technical or legal problem. The Inspectorate should make regular visits to sites to ensure that authorities are conforming to the regulations/statutes.

Standards of service delivery/regulations should be uniform across the country

  The Charter for the Bereaved, published by the IBCA lays the foundations for service delivery, however dependent on the size (and will) of the authority not all of the requirements can or are being met.

  Standards of service should not depend on your postcode.

  At a time when they are at their most vulnerable, and not always thinking clearly or rationally, the bereaved should not be pushed into expecting a lower level of service or made to feel part of a production line.

  Options should be always clearly and sympathetically explained.

  Regulations are important, there are no reasons why they could not be uniform across the country. They should be clear, concise and justifiable. Many Regulations in cemeteries are historical; they are not in line with modern thinking or practice, however one must be mindful of older residents and their feelings.

  Authorities should consult more with their residents, find out what they expect or want from the service. Partnerships with the private sector or more involvement with user groups could be the way forward. Some smaller boroughs should explore the possibility of pooling resources; becoming joint authorities can often result in lower administration costs.


  I firmly believe that local authorities should continue to provide this most important service. It should not be offloaded onto the private sector unless it can be clearly demonstrated that the residents will benefit through choice and costs.

  The service must be regulated and monitored by central government.

  All staff should be able to obtain an NVQ in cemetery management.

  A nationally recognised qualification.

  Standards of service delivery to be set nationally.

  Regulations should be uniform.

  Burial law to be reviewed and updated.

  Closed churchyards to be funded by central government.


  The views expressed in the report above are entirely that of the author and not of the local authority.

S L Yates

December 2000

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