Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Brent Elliott (CEM 71)

  I wish to submit a memorandum to the Sub-committee Inquiry on Cemeteries, relating to one issue only: that of the recently proposed scheme of re-using existing graves for new burials by opening the graves and sinking the existing occupants to a greater depth.

  I am sure that this proposal, which I understand now has the support of the Institute of Burial and Cremation Authorities, will be put to the Sub-committee during the course of its deliberations, and I wish to raise an opposing voice.

  My concern is with the preservation and conservation of existing cemeteries as part of the national heritage, and I fear for the consequences of this policy if generally adopted. In what follows I will first make a note of the existing degree of legal protection and recognition of cemeteries as part of the national heritage; I will then set out the possible ways in which this policy could be enacted, and the likely deleterious consequences; and I will conclude by listing some miscellaneous points that I hope will be taken into consideration if the reopening of graves is discussed.


  The existing legal safeguards for cemeteries are few and inadequate. Few cemeteries have been surveyed in any detail for possible listing of monuments and other structures, and in the case of those cemeteries that possess listed monuments there is obviously room for improvement if and when they are re-surveyed. Only a handful of cemeteries have as yet been included on the English Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens; the English Heritage Garden Registration Department is currently looking at a more extensive survey. I can think of only a couple of cemeteries that fall within conservation areas, though there may well be more than I know of. But certainly for the majority of cemeteries there is no form of statutory protection, either for the buildings or for the monuments.

  Generally speaking, it tends to be the earliest, pioneering cemeteries that have attracted the attention of historians, and therefore have the greatest number of listed monuments. I am not sure of the extent to which local authorities have included cemetery monuments on local lists, but I suspect that it is small.

  The GLC General Powers Act 1976, and in its wake the Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977, redefined the term "perpetuity" to mean a period not exceeding 75 years; for local authority cemeteries (not including those cemeteries still in private ownership, which are governed by their own original Acts of Parliament), the ownership of graves is therefore extinguished 75 years after purchase, or after re-negotiated ownership. This has meant, in effect, that 19th century grave monuments, unless listed, have had no legal protection against removal and destruction. Various cemetery authorities, invoking this Order, have carried out wholesale clearances of older sections of their cemeteries.


  The proposal that has lately been exciting attention is for a process of opening existing older graves, deepening them, and reburying the occupants at a lower depth, thus freeing up a considerable amount of grave space for new burials. This could be done in one of two ways:

    —  retaining the existing monuments, to which any inscriptions for new burials would be attached;

    —  removing the existing monuments and making space available for new monuments to replace them.

  The latter possibility is, for commercial reasons, the one more likely to be favoured by cemetery authorities. It would, however, be extremely destructive: we would thereby lose not only individual monuments, but also the quality of the existing cemetery landscapes, in which the monuments form a determining element.

  I earnestly recommend:

    —  that the Sub-committee rejects such proposals for the reopening of graves;

    —  that, if the Sub-committee is unwilling to reject such proposals, that it makes a strong representation that the existing monuments be retained in all or the majority of cases;

    —  or lastly, if the Sub-committee is unwilling to tie the hands of cemetery authorities to that extent, that it makes a strong representation that such policies should only be adopted (a) after alternative approaches to the provision of grave space (eg community mausolea)* have been shown to be unfeasible; (b) after the cemetery in question has been thoroughly examined by English Heritage and other relevant amenity societies (including local ones) for potential listing and/or registration; and (c) after the monuments to be removed have been adequately recorded, and possibilities of their preservation elsewhere have been explored. I would urge the Sub-committee furthermore to insist that the policing of all such operations be entrusted to the cemetery authorities themselves, but to one or other of the heritage and amenity bodies.

  [*Note on community mausolea—this is a term used in North America for buildings which house coffins and/or containers of cremated remains on shelves. A couple of years ago, at a symposium on the London grave space crisis , I proposed that local authorities should investigate the possibility of building community mausolea, which had the advantage that they did not need to be built in cemeteries, but could be erected anywhere that the local authority had land to spare. The idea was rejected pretty uniformly around the table; a couple of months later I learned that Streatham Park Cemetery was building a community mausoleum. It would be worth the Committee's investigating the success or failure of the Streatham Park development as one possible means of providing the equivalent of grave space for the future. While community mausolea are quite common in Roman Catholic cemeteries on the continent, I can point to the one at Ocean View Cemetery in Vancouver, BC, as one that caters for both Protestants and Catholics.]


  In considering the proposals for reopening graves, I would ask the Sub-committee to bear in mind the following points.

  If monuments are removed during the process of reopening graves, there are two possible ways of doing this:

    —  by extensive clearance;

    —  individually.

  Extensive clearance is what has happened in the past in English cemeteries, and it can pose logistical difficulties that would effect the success of a programme of grave reopening. None of the early cemeteries, and possibly few of the cemeteries established in the 19th century, have the locations of the graves marked on scaled plans; this is because in many cases the graves were not created systematically from the beginning, but were dug ad hoc as clients requested. The earliest cemeteries in particular have plans on which the cemetery staff drew graves as positions were assigned; the results are not to scale, and frequently do not show the relations between graves in adjacent rows very accurately. In order cemeteries, especially if not laid out in a grid plan, the best way of locating older graves is to note a variety of graves in the vicinity and use them as reference points for identifying the grave in question. If the monuments are removed, the precise location of individual graves becomes very problematic. To attempt to open graves for reburials where there are no surviving monuments to assist in the identification of the precise spot will be very difficult. At Norwood Cemetery, for example, where there has been extensive clearance, it has become apparent that some of the new graves which have been dug in the cleared areas are straddling more than one original grave beneath.—This makes a strong argument against attempting to clear monuments before opening graves, at least.

  A further argument against wholesale removal of monuments is the difficulty of ensuring that only those monuments are removed whose removal is legally valid. On the continent, where graves are rented for short—or medium-terms periods, they tend to be grouped together by year of burial, so that areas can be redeveloped en masse. In English cemeteries, on the other hand, there has been no such policy, and most areas will have graves of mixed ages. The clearances of the 1970s and 1980s inevitably entailed the removal of gravestones which were, under the terms of the Local Authority Cemeteries Order 1977, still legally in ownership, simply because, when you are removing stones with a JCB, it is difficult to be selective.

  The Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977, which allows the clearance of monuments from cemeteries, nonetheless orders that any surviving inscriptions must be recorded, photographically or otherwise, before they are removed. In no instance of which I am aware has anyone taken this instruction about inscriptions to include the inscriptions on kerbstones which identify the firm of masons who erected the monument. Many cemeteries which still retain their older monuments have had the kerbs removed in order to facilitate the grassing of areas for ease of maintenance; I know of no instance in which the names of the masons have been recorded before removal. The evidence for the history of monumental masonry in this country has been to a great extent destroyed as a result.

  The proponents of the reopening of graves will very likely claim that cemetery authorities can be trusted to carry out the process with all requisite care. Please be cautious about accepting such claims. The behaviour of cemetery authorities in implementing the Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977 may be taken as an indication of what is likely to happen. As noted above, that Order contained the provision that monuments should have any surviving inscriptions recorded, photographically or otherwise, before removal. This means that any cemetery which has cleared graves since 1977 should have a collection of photographs of the monuments which have been removed, or a collection of written copies of their inscriptions. It would be a very useful exercise if the Sub-committee could conduct a test of the way in which this provision has been complied with. I have not made any extensive enquiries, but I would be surprised if many cemeteries have actually complied with the law on this point.—This is an argument against allowing cemetery authorities to be self-policing on the question of the clearance of monuments.

  And please note, the 1977 Order contains no provision that the general physical appearance of the monument—its design, its sculptural details—be recorded: only inscriptions (understood though not explicitly stated to mean the identification of the occupants of the graves).

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