Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good morning. Can I welcome you to the first session of the Committee's inquiry into cemeteries. Could I ask you both to identify yourselves for the record?
  (Dr Walter) Dr Tony Walter
  (Dr Hussein) Dr Ian Hussein.

  2. Thank you very much. Do either of you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight into questions?
  (Dr Walter) I am happy for you to go straight into questions.

Mr Benn

  3. Good morning. How would you sum up the condition of cemeteries in Britain today in essence?
  (Dr Hussein) I would say that the general standard of maintenance in terms of the cutting of grass and the general care of the greenery of cemeteries is quite good, but I would say that the overall state and condition of the infrastructure of cemeteries is very poor. When you look at the detail of cemeteries, for example if we go into the infrastructure of drainage, pathways, boundaries, actual buildings, I would have to describe that as very poor. If you go a step further and look at the condition of memorials, old gravestones, in cemeteries, I would say it is extremely poor.
  (Dr Walter) I would agree with that. If you look at British cemeteries on an international comparison, if you compare us to the United States, where the selling of graves has always included an element of what they call perpetual care, there is the funding for the proper maintenance of cemeteries and in almost all other European countries they have a reuse leasing system that generates not only ongoing income but most graves have families who are currently interested in maintaining them and Britain is the odd one out.

  4. Who do you think ought to be responsible for maintaining cemeteries and for dealing with the problems that you have just identified?
  (Dr Hussein) I would say that local authorities should retain responsibility for cemeteries but I think there needs to be greater responsibility taken by Central Government in terms of the strategic direction of the disposal of the dead in this country. The whole area has lacked any direction in terms of policy and I would say that is the fault of governments over the last 100 or so years.

  5. Why do you think that is the case?
  (Dr Hussein) From every aspect you look at in terms of strategic planning, setting of policy, the Government has relinquished responsibility and passed it on to local authorities. It is almost as though the current state that we have has occurred by default, political default. At the moment I see no co-ordination at all by the Government in terms of the future arrangements for the disposal of the dead. I describe the general condition as very poor and I would say that is largely due to a lack of forward thinking, particularly from Central Government.

  6. Dr Walter, you said in your submission that you thought that death was much less of a taboo subject in our society now than it has been previously. Why do you think that is the case? Have we gone sufficiently along the way to make the discussion of death open?
  (Dr Walter) Yes. Whether or not it was taboo there is certainly a lot of discussion about it now. A study that I and some colleagues did in the mid-1990s showed that in one particular three month period, I think it was autumn 1994, when we sampled the front pages of all the national newspapers, and this was not a period when there was any great disaster or war or anything like that, we found around half of all the pictures and the stories on the front pages were about death in one way or another. Certainly as far as the media is concerned death is not a taboo topic, it is a very fashionable one. I think to some extent it is to do with the changing way in which people die. Increasingly people die of degenerative diseases rather than infectious diseases and, because of advances in medicine, diseases like cancer and heart disease can be diagnosed earlier and earlier and medical treatment very often does not definitively cure them but can maintain life at a very healthy level, very often for decades. So the idea that we are a healthy society and you just go into hospital and die a few days later, it is not like that, there are a lot of people around wondering how to manage the process of dying. I think we are just in a new ball game really, the process of dying has changed and the old ways of doing it do not work any more. That is very much on the agenda. When it comes to burials and funerals there is a certain interest in do-it-yourself funerals, green burials, things that are a little bit off the wall maybe that the media likes to concentrate on. What there has not been so far is a serious discussion either amongst policy makers or in the media about the rights to a decent burial.


  7. Are you implying that some people do not get a decent burial then?
  (Dr Walter) This is my personal view. It seems to me that in our society people should have a choice between cremation and burial. Burial should be somewhere that is reasonably local, reasonably accessible, safe to visit, and the burial ground should be sustainable. People choose burial typically for one of two reasons in our country. One is for religious or cultural reasons, they may be catholic or muslim. The other is because they want to visit the grave. It may be a child who has died, there may be all sorts of personal reasons why they want to visit the grave. Very often the mourners who want to visit the grave on an ongoing basis are elderly and women and to have a large consolidated out of town cemetery on a motorway intersection is not really suitable. To have to walk through a large area of an old cemetery where there are disused graves, nobody is visiting the area, in order to get to a husband's grave is also not satisfactory. It seems to me the right to a decent burial and to a decent burial plot means that it should be local, safe and accessible and that is what we do not have in this country and almost every other country in Europe does have that right.

Mr Benn

  8. You mentioned that there are a range of alternatives available when it comes to the disposal of the dead. Do you think that the recently bereaved have access to independent advice about the range of choices available in those two or three days in effect when people have to take a decision about how they are going to arrange the funeral of someone they have lost given the role of funeral directors and advice that may be provided by local authorities running cemeteries, some of whom provide advice for the bereaved?
  (Dr Walter) I do not think that they do have anything like the range of choices explained to them at that time. That is one of the reasons why I certainly welcome the advance planning of funerals so that people can think about the issue beforehand. It does not necessarily mean advance purchase but the advance planning of it. When it actually comes to the moment, you are absolutely right, you have got a very short period of time to think about things which is why we need more information and a culture which is more open about discussing these issues.

  9. We have received evidence that in some cases funeral directors are not very keen to point out to the recently bereaved that, for instance, the green funeral option is available, the use of cardboard coffins, and those kinds of things. You mentioned the need for improved information, how are we going to ensure that we, as the bereaved, find out what is available at the time we need to?
  (Dr Walter) If you are talking about information at the moment of death, not in the months beforehand, clearly funeral directors are the prime source of information. I would want to say that if you are a funeral director and you have a distressed family member then, yes, you cannot give them 153 options, there is a limit to what you can give them. Otherwise I think there are really only two main ways in which information can be readily accessible at the point of death or in the day or so afterwards. One is through the internet and there is significant potential there because people can tap into that and there are one or two companies that are now providing this information on the internet. The other is something which we have been proposing in the National Funerals College, of which I am a member, which is a funeral adviser where in hospitals and old people's homes and places where people die there is somebody who is trained to actually enable people to see what the options are, so you have actually got an extra source of independent information. It seems to me those are the only two ways you could really in a big way increase the availability of information.

Mr Donohoe

  10. Why do you think cemeteries are failing in their principal task?
  (Dr Walter) I think basically because the way in which in Britain 150 years ago we attempted to solve the burial crisis was, and is in the long run, unsustainable. You either need lots of land and proper funding, as in the United States, or else you need a well designed system of reuse of graves and short-term leases as every other European country has created. We are now reaping the inheritance of a badly designed system from the 1850s.

  11. Do you think that in practical terms it is the best use of the land to have burials at all?
  (Dr Hussein) Yes. I think that cemeteries are sustainable if we could have the reuse of graves and perhaps extend that to the reuse of monuments in order that we can conserve the monuments that we have. We now have great infrastructure in this country, particularly in our towns and cities, extensive cemeteries. The reason they are falling into a poor state, and continue to do so, is because we are failing to use them in a sustainable way, and that was exactly what Tony was pointing out. If we are able to reuse the graves we would be able to solve the problems in the long-term. Cemeteries are running out of space and we need to plan well ahead. It is vital that we have the reuse of graves introduced at the earliest opportunity because the industry is going to need at least 20 years to get its act together to implement the reuse of graves in an effective manner.


  12. Could you just explain reuse so we can get that very clearly. I think we are being televised this morning and there will be people listening and watching who would like to know what you are talking about when you talk about the reuse of graves.
  (Dr Hussein) I think we need to start by defining exactly what we can and cannot do at the moment. When we inter somebody it is illegal to disturb the remains once they are interred. In London, and it is important to mention London because London has far greater powers than the rest of the country, 75 years after the date of the last interment, London boroughs, as burial authorities, have the right to reclaim the rights of burial in a grave and to reuse the remaining depth in that grave without disturbing the previous interments. So if, for example, a grave was used 100 years ago and interment took place at ten feet and there is a remaining depth, we can use that remaining depth. Across the country local authorities already have the powers to clear gravestones, and that has been done on quite a large scale, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. When we talk about the actual reuse that we want to see introduced, we are talking about the right to disturb remains after a set period. We are proposing that is 75 years after the date of the last interment, whereby a grave would be reopened and excavated to the maximum depth that could be achieved and any remains that are found in that process are reinterred in the same grave at the bottom, so we actually create more space. It has been suggested that we do that providing there are no objections from any living relatives.

Mr Donohoe

  13. For a historian, whose main source in many cases would be cemeteries, that would be lost in circumstances like that.
  (Dr Hussein) Not necessarily. It is being lost at the moment because those monuments I am talking about are literally falling to pieces. We have cemeteries full of millions of gravestones that are falling into deterioration. We know from surveys that have been carried out that at least five per cent of those monuments are in a very dangerous state, that has been proven at various cemeteries.

  14. What do you think local authorities can do to improve this service?
  (Dr Hussein) It is a vicious circle in terms of what they can and cannot do. At the moment I think there is a lack of direction at the local government level in terms of the use of cemeteries. They are not being run in a sustainable way, neither from the use of the land nor financially. The fees and charges that are applied at cemeteries are totally unrealistic but, on the other hand, people find it difficult to afford burial because it is becoming so expensive. The reason is we are selling graves for such long periods, on average between 50 and 75 years. If I was to say to you "you can buy a grave and you can pay £10 a year and I will look after that grave for you for 75 years", I will get £750. There are few local authorities in this country that are even charging that and it is totally unsustainable.

  15. What do you think should be taken as a course of action to improve the status of a burial?
  (Dr Hussein) We are just touching on the tip of the iceberg of the problems. We need central direction from Government. This whole issue needs to be looked at very, very thoroughly. Cemeteries and burial authorities should be required to have cemetery management plans. We need to look at the provision of cemeteries on a regional basis. At the moment they are within local government but they are such a small area of local government activity that they get no real attention from a political perspective at the local level and certainly not at the central level.

  16. One of the other inquiries that we have been involved in was parks where we identified that there was not the expertise and there was not the training of the staff. Would that be the same with cemeteries? Do you think that something should be done about it?
  (Dr Hussein) I would say in the larger authorities the officers are well trained because they can afford to have a dedicated officer. At the lower level, in small local authorities, town councils, parish councils, the level of expertise is almost non-existent.

  17. How do you improve that? What should be done?
  (Dr Hussein) The problem is that at town and parish, smaller levels, they do not justify the appointment of a full-time officer simply because the operation is not big enough. That is why I think you need to look at a much bigger scale in terms of the provision, planning and running of cemetery services.

Mr Cummings

  18. We heard some evidence from the advisers before we started that there is a dearth of information concerning cemeteries, the number of cemeteries, the number of churchyards. On what basis have you just made those statements? What evidence do you have to prove what you have just told the Committee?
  (Dr Hussein) In terms of the level of expertise?

  19. In terms of the staffing of cemeteries, the quality of cemeteries, the standards applied in cemeteries?
  (Dr Hussein) I have worked in the profession for 17 years and I have been involved in the Institute of Burial and Cremation for most of that period. I have travelled throughout the country looking at cemeteries and meeting people who actually run them. I have also run a large number of training seminars that are organised specifically to provide basic training for those running cemeteries at the town and parish level. I have always been astonished at the absolute lack of knowledge, even about basic legal duties and responsibilities.

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