Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by English Heritage (CEM 80)


  1.1  English Heritage welcomes the opportunity to submit a memorandum to the Environment Sub-committee expressing our views on cemeteries. Our comments are restricted to England although many of the general observations we make apply more widely. The heritage value of cemeteries is enormous. The issues they raise are wide-ranging and complex and involve ethical and religious considerations, respect for our ancestors, archaeological, architectural, historic and wildlife importance, open space, tourism and amenity value. Most of these issues and the management decisions that result from them are best dealt with at local level. It is in local cemeteries in the main that local people's loved ones, relations and ancestors lie and where they too will lie in time (as inhumations or cremations). It is also local communities that benefit most directly from the amenity value that cemeteries provide. But the future of cemeteries is not solely a local issue. Genealogists and descendants of buried people have an interest, even though they may now live far away from the cemetery in which their families lie. And national bodies have a responsibility to identify the most significant cemeteries when judged against national scales of importance, and participate in discussions about their future.

  1.2  English Heritage's concerns and responsibilities, as the lead body within the historic environment sector, revolve primarily around the following: the evaluation of the historical and landscape significance of cemeteries and the individual components within them (such as cemetery chapels or memorials); the archaeological importance of the human remains they contain; the provision of guidance on evaluating historical and archaeological significance; providing advice on repair, maintenance and management; and the disbursement of grants for repair within available resources and our statutory remit. English Heritage also has a well-respected education service which, among other activities, actively encourages teachers and tutors to make effective curriculum use of the historic environment.


  2.1  Cemeteries have wide appeal. In the main they are public (or at least publicly accessible) open spaces with great amenity potential and are a diverse historical resource with tremendous educational potential. Taken together, cemeteries contain one of the nation's most significant collections of memorial sculpture and funerary buildings. Many have great significance in terms of historic landscaping and planting and often provide the most mature amenity landscape in many localities. At their best, they contribute significantly to the visual excitement of many towns and cities by combining landscape, architecture and monumental art. They also frequently form important natural habitats—refuges from the pressures of urban life for humans and wildlife alike. We understand that English Nature is also presenting a memorandum to the Sub-committee which concentrates on the wildlife issues.

  2.2  Definition and numbers. A cemetery is a piece of ground set aside and enclosed for the burial of the dead and/or the reception of cremated remains and is distinguished from a churchyard by not being attached to a place of regular worship. We have information and views about the latter that we would gladly bring before the Sub-committee if requested to do so, but for the purposes of this memorandum we are working within the above definition. While the majority are Christian (of various denominations), there are also significant numbers of Jewish burial grounds and, more recently, places dedicated to the reception of the remains of those belonging to other religions. It is not known for certain how many cemeteries there are in England. However, best estimates suggest that they number around 2,250, ranging from the grand 19th-century set-pieces to the more modest grounds set out in many rural parishes in more recent years. [28] Local people may attach greater value to the latter than the former. English Heritage's primary role is to identify cemeteries (and structures within them) of national importance. But we are also committed to provide guidance for the evaluation of historical significance and the good management of those that are more locally prized and where final decisions best lie wholly with local communities and planning authorities.

  2.3  A very brief overview of the development of cemeteries may be of help. Burials have taken place within the shadow of churches since the early medieval period, and parish churchyards now constitute a remarkably enduring burial tradition at the heart of local communities. The earliest cemeteries in England date from the mid-17th century and reflect the rise of Non-conformity and the arrival of immigrant groups (the Jewish Sephardi community opened their first cemetery in London's East End in 1657). The growth of cities in the 18th century obliged churches to open new suburban burial grounds, but the situation became intolerable by the late 1820s. Fears over public health and the romantic cult of sensibility led to the opening of new, commercially operated garden cemeteries in the 1830s. Kensal Green cemetery in West London opened in 1831. In the 1850s most urban graveyards were closed on health grounds, and municipal authorities were empowered to open public cemeteries through the rates.


  3.1  There are a number of procedures designed to protect and enhance the significance and amenity value of cemeteries of special historic interest.

  3.2  Listing. Individual historic cemetery structures of "special architectural or historic interest" may be added to the statutory lists by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. This is normally done on the advice of English Heritage as the government's statutory advisor in this area. Listing requires the owner of a listed building or structure to seek consent before carrying out works that might alter its character. There are 2,286 listed items situated within cemeteries in England (less than 1 per cent of the national total). Of these, 73 are listed in grade I and 136 in grade II*.

  3.3  Listing is a key way of flagging highly significant monuments which require special attention but it is likely that many cemetery structures of listable quality remain unprotected, a matter that English Heritage is currently addressing. Listing surveys of a number of outstanding cemeteries have already been carried out (for instance at Kensal Green, Hampstead, West Norwood, Highgate and Mill Road, Cambridge) but more are needed. Published guidelines explaining the listing criteria for cemetery structures, especially monuments, will be prepared by English Heritage over the next 12 months. These will enable greater and better-informed public involvement in the process of identification through the process of "spot-listing". Listing, however, is not designed to address the wider issue of overall cemetery design and landscaping. While a cluster of listed monuments may indicate a cemetery of more than local importance, cemeteries whose special historic character derives from the careful laying-out of pathways and planting may well not be picked up through the listing process.

  3.4  The Parks and Gardens Register. The National Heritage Act of 1983 recognised that historic parks and gardens are a fragile and finite resource and enabled English Heritage to compile a Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England. The Register is designed to encourage owners and local authorities to take special care of registered items. The existence of a park or garden on the Register is a material consideration when determining any planning application or when preparing development plans that might affect them. Planning authorities are required to consult English Heritage on planning applications concerning grade I and II* registered sites (about 40 per cent of the total) and the Garden History Society on all sites. There are 1,365 registered parks and gardens of which 25 are cemeteries (plus a number of memorial gardens and gardens of remembrance). Six of the cemeteries are graded II*, the rest at grade II. In the light of work completed for us by Dr Chris Brooks (already cited) and other systematic reviews, it is estimated that a further 75 or more cemeteries might be eligible for registration either as a whole or in part. If these were added to the Register they would represent 7 per cent of the total stock of registered parks and gardens.

  3.5  Registration of a cemetery as an historic park or garden helps focus attention on the whole (as well as the individual components), especially the landscaping and historic planting which is often of the greatest importance, especially with cemeteries of the 19th century. English Heritage considers the assessment of historic cemeteries to be a priority within the Parks and Gardens registration programme and, if resources permit, will complete its work in this area within two years. It is worth mentioning here that the potential registration of a park or garden involves consultation with owners and others responsible for its management. In the case of the majority of cemeteries this would be the local planning authority, private cemetery company and other bodies such as Friends of cemeteries.

  3.6  Conservation Areas. As the Sub-committee's press notice of 7 November inviting memoranda from interested parties makes clear, the significance of cemeteries to local communities is a very important consideration. Local planning authorities have the power to designate cemeteries as Conservation Areas and many are already so designated or fall within larger Conservation Areas. Numbers for these are not available. Conservation Area status brings with it a combination of controls and obligations to enhance the historic environment and new designations normally involve a character assessment and formal consultation with the local community. As such, it has considerable potential for enabling local people to express their views and become engaged in the longer-term management of the historic cemetery in question. English Heritage has produced guidance for the character assessment and management of Conservation Areas and is concerned to strengthen controls where appropriate to safeguard smaller items within characterful areas where they contribute to the quality of the whole. At present, because of de minimis rules, individual small memorials are not protected under the Conservation Area legislation.

  3.7  The archaeology of cemeteries. By definition, cemeteries are more than meet the eye. There is no reliable estimate as to how many people lie buried in English cemeteries. A conservative estimate of those buried in cemeteries and burial grounds laid out between 1600 and 1900 in the London metropolis alone is round 6 million. Only a minority of these will lie within cemeteries that are still in use. Leaving aside for a moment the ethical considerations of removing human remains, and bearing in mind that the Home Office, which issues exhumation licences, clearly distinguishes between the sensitivity of burials over and under 100 years old, older human remains and their treatment has become a subject almost exclusively delegated to the archaeologist. About one-third of cemeteries post-date the First World War. This means that the majority of cemeteries contain burials that lie outside the Home Office's parameters of acute sensitivity. The removal of post-1830s burials, often of considerable archaeological value, is carried out almost by default by specialist removal companies. Increasingly, methods of removal are being questioned on ethical and historical grounds although new protocols are currently being developed with the industry. It is increasingly important to bear the archaeological dimension in mind when considering the long-term future of 19th-century cemeteries. We return to this later when we consider the management of cemeteries.


  4.1  Cemeteries are under increasing pressure from increased demand for burial space or to re-use redundant cemetery space for other purposes. Many cemeteries are full. Records are poor (or at least uneven across the board) and legal responsibility for the upkeep of graves is often forgotten. This is especially true where the majority of local people are in-comers and where the tradition of tending graves has broken down. Some historic cemeteries are (and have always been) undercapitalised. There is frequently a backlog of maintenance and increasing concerns about health and public safety. Consequently there is pressure to reduce both public liability risks and the costs of maintenance. Additional room for burials in active cemeteries is often found by clearing the ground of tombstones, sometimes by stacking them against walls, lying them flat as paving or breaking them up for crazy paving. Areas are banked up to create new levels for interments and new burials often encroach upon paths. Sweeping away monuments blights the historic ensemble irrevocably. Even partial clearance is damaging in that it erodes the character of the whole and subjects the spared tombs to damage from mechanical grave digging. Exhuming bodies raises serious ethical issues, is expensive and unpopular, and levelling "abandoned" memorials and slotting new interments in between the old is a common policy for re-use. But areas suitable for clearance with less impact on what is important can often by found (at Nunhead, for instance, a new section for Muslims has been identified). It involves survey work (understanding what is there), imagination and a realistic conservation and management plan (for which see below, paragraphs 4.8-4.9).

  4.2  In the absence of a systematic condition survey of English historic cemeteries, it is difficult to be certain how many of them are poorly maintained. Of the nine cemeteries in London considered by English Heritage to be most at risk from neglect, disrepair, theft and vandalism, three are in fair condition, five are poor and one very bad. If these figures were extrapolated to suggest the national picture it might be that two-thirds of England's most vulnerable historic cemeteries are in poor or very bad condition. Using English Heritage's Buildings at Risk Register, it is likely that around 6-9 per cent of listed cemetery structures are at risk.

  4.3  A recent report on burial needs in London indicates the scale of the challenge. [29] In Inner London, 20,000 burial spaces will still be required every year despite the fact that 70 per cent of people now opt for cremation. Inner London is now on the point of running out of burial space. However, even by 2016, it is estimated that 12,000 burial spaces will still be required. Even if London represents one extreme of the spectrum, the situation nation-wide is still a challenging one, especially where cemeteries are of historic, archaeological, natural or amenity value. In order to alleviate the situation, the report went on to recommend that the depth of new graves should be increased to accommodate new interments; that exclusive burial rights should be limited to 50 years; that the choice of cremation be further promoted; and that the selective re-use of graves over 100 years be considered.

  4.4  This has significant implications for the heritage and amenity value of historic cemeteries, both for local communities and nationally. English Heritage would like to see a number of initiatives and procedures adopted or developed which we believe would safeguard the historic and amenity character of cemeteries for the benefit of all.

  4.5  Understanding the cultural values attached to cemeteries. The recently published historic environment review carried out by English Heritage on behalf of the heritage sector at the request of the government, [30] recognises the variety of responses to historic things and places and the significance that people attach to them. While very important indeed, the view of national bodies and specialists is not the sole measure of what is significant, and local values and expectations need to be integrated more fully into the appraisal and management of the historic resource. Cemeteries are particularly complex in this respect, involving sentimental, imaginative and emotional responses that are by definition intangible and not easily subject to planning or regulation. This diversity of values should always be kept in mind when considering the future of cemeteries and the need to understand them written into any conservation, planning or management brief. English Heritage has, for some years, encouraged schools to record grave memorials[31] and some schools have chosen cemeteries for the Schools Adopt Monuments project which English Heritage Education has been organising across the country.

  4.6  National significance. It is important to identify the most significant historic cemeteries as seen in a national context. English Heritage must continue to take the lead here. As stated in paragraph 3.4 we propose to complete our assessment of nationally important cemeteries as part of the Parks and Gardens Register programme and this will involve consultation with the principal local stakeholders. (This will be along the lines of the work we are currently undertaking on Urban Parks for which £80,000 has been allocated over a two-year period.) Systematic listing surveys will be carried out from time to time over the next two years to address the lack of adequate protection for important monuments or groups of monuments in the key historic cemeteries. Additions to the lists will also be made using "spot-listing" procedures along the lines outlined above in paragraph 3.3.

  4.7  While substantial numbers of historic cemeteries are important wholly or in part, many, including probably the bulk of those dating from after the First World War, are of little or no historic interest in national terms, although they may be significant wildlife habitats and be held in high esteem and affection by local people. It may also be the case that local people feel dissatisfied with conventional cemeteries and seek more fitting and relevant ways of disposal. Many find cemeteries, especially derelict or poorly managed ones, repugnant and alienating. The full range of values attached to a cemetery needs to be established before long-term management programmes are agreed.

  4.8  Conservation and management plans are the best vehicle for achieving this. Only on the basis of a secure appreciation of the significance of the site, can decisions be made about what needs to be kept and enhanced, altered or cleared, and potential conflicts between different priorities—operational requirements, historic building conservation, the needs of wild animals and flora, amenity and access—can be identified and reconciled. As well as identifying areas of historic importance, they can also help identify areas where clearance and new burials might take place.

  4.9  The pre-requisite for a successful conservation and management plan is to ensure that access to the relevant technical guidance and expertise is available, and that the principal stakeholders are involved from the outset. For cemeteries this would normally include some local community participation. Hitherto, there has often been a failure on the part of cemetery owners, including local authorities, to approach cemetery management in strategic terms and take the full range of social, educational and environmental issues into account. Plans for managing the ecological resource have been around for quite some time, but comprehensive approaches that take historic as well as the ecological factors into account are still few and far between. This is the case with some of the major historic examples—Kensal Green Cemetery (London), for example, which has received considerable public funding, still lacks a unified management plan. But exemplary approaches can also be cited including, for instance, Land Use Consultants' long-term ecological and historic environmental plan for West Norwood (on behalf of Lambeth Council). Heritage Lottery Fund rules now require full conservation plans when considering applications for substantial grant aid.

  4.10  English Heritage has had considerable involvement in the repair of cemetery structures (via our regional offices) and the development of conservation plans. An English Heritage guidance note specifically concerned with the conservation of historic cemeteries is in preparation, using our national overview to help support and inform local management. In addition to this holistic approach, we are preparing a Technical Advisory Note (due to be published in September 2001) on churchyard tombstone repair and conservation, which will have direct relevance to cemetery monuments as well as to war memorials (about which an English Heritage sponsored conference is to be held on 31 January 2001), where interim guidance will be available). These documents will complement other agencies' advice such as The Council for the Care of Churches whose revised Churchyards Handbook is due to be published soon.

  4.11  The drawing-up of a full conservation appraisal or plan is now normally required before grant aid is made available (and other conditions are met). English Heritage grants range from the very large (as for instance grants or offers of over £200,000 made respectively to the repair or important structures in Highgate and Kensal Green cemeteries) to more modest contributions as part of Conservation Area grant schemes, especially where grant aid can bring about the regeneration and revitalisation of run-down or derelict localities. Other bodies, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund also disperse substantial funds.

  4.12  Archaeological advice. English Heritage's views on best practice regarding the treatment of buried human remains have been published recently. [32] The main focus of concern for us lies with ancient burial grounds (many of which went out of operation in the early-nineteenth century and were part of the justification for the new generation of private and municipal cemeteries) and burials below or around parish churches. Home Office guidance, however, may place burials of the nineteenth and early-twentieth century under threat, including those in cemeteries still in use and under pressure of space. It is unlikely that there will often be compelling reasons to carry out scientific and archaeological examination of human remains in Victorian cemeteries, but this should not be taken for granted. Our advice is to address the issue of archaeological potential prior to disturbing human remains. Ideally, such an (initially desktop) evaluation would form part of the conservation and management plan.


  English Heritage welcomes the interest that the Sub-committee is showing in this matter. We recognise that this is an issue that needs addressing quickly at a national level, and one that will remain a sensitive and challenging one. We also recognise that there are potentially competing interests here—the need to find new burial space, promoting bio-diversity, respecting the historical landscape—and we look forward to playing a constructive role with the other leading bodies, both nationally and locally. Cemeteries remain a little-studied area in historical terms. We still need to learn more about them in order to ensure that they are managed sensitively and sustainably. Historic cemeteries cannot be allowed unthinkingly either to fall into "pleasing decay" or become subject to drastic clearance or intensive re-use.

December 2000

28   These figures are derived from a study commissioned by English Heritage by Chris Brooks, English Historic Cemeteries: A Theme Study (1994). Back

29   J Dunk and J Rugg, The Management of Old Cemetery Land: Now and Future. A Report of the University of York Cemetery Research Group (1994). Back

30   Power and Place. The future of the historic environment, published 14 December 2000. Back

31   God's Acre. Nature conservation in the churchyard. English Heritage Video 1993. Back

32   Jez Reeve, "The Archaeology of Crypts and Burial Grounds", BCD Special Report on Ecclesiastical Buildings, (1997). David Miles, "Burials and archaeology. Care and treatment of exhumed human remains", Conservation Bulletin (37), March 2000, pp 14-15. Back

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