Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Eighth Report


Why reuse graves?

  116. The system of reuse which is most commonly considered in this country is known as "lift and deepen". This involves exhuming any remains which may be left in a grave after a set period - 75 or 100 years are most commonly suggested - and reinterring them in the same grave at greater depth, thus making space available for new burials.[254] This method is common in other European countries, and is also practised in Australia.[255] It was also, as Dr Walter mentions, the practice in English churchyards for hundreds of years up until the mid eighteenth century.[256]

117. There are two main reasons for considering the reuse of graves. The first is quite simply the lack of burial space to which we refer earlier. We have already expressed our view that the public should continue to have access to local, accessible burial space.[257] In the London Planning Advisory Committee studies which established the need for new burial space, a number of alternative ways of achieving this aim were considered.[258] These were: reclaiming unused burial space in existing graves;[259] raising the land over existing graves by adding soil which can then be excavated for additional graves ('mounding')[260]; and 'cramming' new graves into any available space.[261] The conclusion the studies reached was that none would provide a long-term solution to the growing crisis in burial provision - and the latter two would worsen the condition of existing cemeteries by fundamentally altering their character and design.[262]

118. The second reason for introducing a system of reuse is to counter the disastrous impact on our cemeteries of the ever-declining revenue for maintenance. As we have already indicated, one of the reasons for the current poor condition of many of our cemeteries - and certainly those which are entirely full and can take no more burials[263] - is the lack of income from burial fees. Reuse would enable cemetery managers to plan for the future confidently, knowing that a sustainable source of income was available.[264] It may also enable the Church to reopen previously closed churchyards, increasing choice for local communities and relieving hard-pressed local authorities of a substantial financial burden.[265]

119. Furthermore, reuse may offer some help in addressing the problem of unsafe and decrepit monuments. We have heard that some people are willing to 'adopt' old monuments for themselves, adding their own inscriptions to existing headstones when they are buried in reclaimed grave space.[266] This could be encouraged for reused graves, and appropriate fees charged to ensure that such monuments can be properly maintained.

Why is it not already done?

  120. A consultation paper on the reuse of graves, presumably foreshadowing the introduction of the necessary legislation, was prepared by the Home Office in 1998, and a draft circulated amongst a small group of people in the industry. However, the consultation paper was not issued. It appears that the main reason why the consultation paper was not issued was that Ministers were concerned about the sensitivities inherent in the subject.[267]

121. A major survey of public attitudes towards the reuse of graves was carried out in 1995 by Douglas Davies and Alistair Shaw.[268] We took evidence from Professor Davies on this study, which appears to us to have been very thorough and comprehensive.[269] Many witnesses refer to the results of this research as indicating "a majority in favour of reuse".[270] This view is something of an oversimplification of the findings of the study,[271] and we do not underestimate the sensitivity of the subject of the disturbance of human remains. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the research demonstrated that, handled sensitively, this was a subject which was quite ripe for public debate.[272] As Professor Davies told us, " the public is not a child when it comes to discussing death."[273] Given that Ministers' main concerns appear to have been with the public's attitude towards the disturbance of buried human remains, it is disappointing that the Home Office Minister did not appear to be aware of the implications of Professor Davies's work.[274]


  122. Only two of the memoranda we received expressed outright opposition to reusing graves. One was from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which wrote that its "prime concern [was] to ensure that, if any such scheme should be implemented, the legislation excepts war graves so that they remain undisturbed and can be marked and commemorated in perpetuity."[275] The other was from Dr Brent Elliott, a historian, whose main concern was with the consequences of such a practice for cemeteries as part of the national heritage.[276]

123. Notwithstanding our comments above on the public acceptability of grave reuse, these two memoranda - and Ministerial sensitivity about issuing a consultation paper on reuse - point to a very real need for strict safeguards to be put in place should grave reuse be permitted. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission's concerns, as befits its role as guardian of the graves of those who died whilst serving with their country, properly place themselves in a separate category. In the case of war graves it would be appropriate to provide for specific legislative protection against reuse. However, family members have proper concerns about the fate of their relatives' graves. It is very important to note that in no circumstances is it envisaged that graves be reused without the consent of surviving and contactable members of the family of the present occupant of the grave. In all cases strict guidelines would have to be set down, and rigorously policed, concerning the procedures to be followed for securing the agreement of any surviving family members before existing remains could be exhumed and reburied.[277]

124. Nor is it envisaged that people should only be given the option of burial in a reused grave. Of course in many places virgin burial space is very much at a premium, and burial fees might reflect that fact. However, experience has shown that, once the situation has been explained to them, the public are quite amenable to the idea of being buried in a reused grave.[278] In particular, burial in a reused grave in a local churchyard or cemetery may be far preferable to the alternatives of having to be taken many miles to a cemetery which still has space available, or of cremation.[279]

125. Dr Elliott's concerns about the preservation of the heritage value of cemeteries were echoed by other witnesses.[280] The introduction of reuse offers perhaps the only chance of generating the funds necessary to maintain our historic and other cemeteries. Nevertheless, we agree that it is very important that the historical, architectural and archaeological significance of cemeteries should not be compromised by programmes of reuse. The same is true of cemeteries' importance for biodiversity.[281] Reuse should always be carried out in a manner sensitive to these concerns, and areas of particular significance may have to be protected. Above all, proper record-keeping is essential.[282] We have been told that even now record-keeping is in many cases not all it should be[283] - and in some, very possibly not in compliance with legal obligations.[284] Strict regulation will be necessary to ensure that the role of cemeteries as an important local and national historical resource is not lost.

Cemetery management plans

  126. The best way to ensure that reuse was carried out only in the most sensitive and appropriate manner would be for any cemetery - or churchyard - in which reuse was contemplated to be the subject of a comprehensive management plan, tailored to the particular needs of the site.[285] Indeed, a number of our witnesses suggested that the production of a management plan was an essential element of best practice for any cemetery.[286] In addition to all the relevant components of a typical business plan (eg. an outline of income, outgoings, staffing, resources and future development), such a plan should include:

  • an assessment of the cemetery's value in historical, cultural and environmental terms, including its value to the local community;[287]
  • the risks and threats to the cemetery, for example the prospect of running out of burial space, threats from particular maintenance regimes, or the risks posed by currently unsafe monuments;[288]
  • an assessment of the work which needs to be done in the cemetery, both on an ongoing basis and in terms of restoration;
  • a programme of annual maintenance and repairs; and
  • identification of the resources available, whether from the owner of the cemetery, from fees and charges, from grant-giving bodies, or from other sources; and of the priorities for spending.

We recommend that, wherever possible, comprehensive management plans be drawn up for individual cemeteries. The Government's new advisory group should produce and disseminate guidelines for cemetery managers on how this should be done.

Reuse: conclusion

  127. It is the almost universal view of those in the burial industry that reuse is the only long-term solution not only to the lack of burial space, but also to the long-term financial viability of cemeteries.[289] If the public are to continue to have access to affordable, accessible burial in cemeteries fit for the needs of the bereaved, there appears to be no alternative to grave reuse. The Government's consultation paper on the reuse of graves - which we understand is now also to include a number of other matters relating to cemetery provision[290] - should therefore be issued as soon as possible. If the Home Office requires further research before commencing this already long-delayed consultation, it should specify exactly what is required and ensure that it is carried out speedily, with due regard for the consequences of further delaying a resolution of this matter. For the reasons stated above, and assuming that the necessary safeguards are included, we are ourselves of the opinion that legislation should be introduced allowing burial to take place in reused graves.

Review of legislation

  128. A complete review of the law relating to burial and cemetery management, including churchyards, is required. We welcome the Government's recognition of this fact: the Home Office Minister of State recently described burial legislation as "an unwieldy, arcane and out­of­date body of law that is ripe for reform."[291] We have already referred to the industry code of practice, the 'Charter for the Bereaved': a constructive approach would be full consultation with charter organisers to consider the legislative changes that would be most likely to result in a consistently-operated service that met the needs of the bereaved. Note should also be taken of the recommendations made by the Office of Fair Trading, which is currently inquiring into Cemeteries and Crematoria, and the Home Office inquiry following the Shipman affair, which may revise arrangements for death registration and certification. We recommend that the Government's new advisory group carry out this review and make recommendations for appropriate rationalisation and improvement of the law relating to the disposal of the dead. Once this is complete, it is imperative that legislative time be found for the necessary changes, and we shall be following progress in this regard closely.


  129. We did not come to the subject of cemeteries expecting to find that all was well. Even so, we were taken aback by the sheer magnitude of the problems facing our cemeteries. The almost complete failure on the part of public authorities to take the action necessary to address those problems - from the Home Office's decision not to issue the consultation paper on the reuse of graves to local authorities' refusal to treat this essential service with the seriousness which it deserves - is inexcusable. We trust that, now Ministerial minds have been focussed on the subject of cemetery services,[292] this situation will begin to change. Indeed, the situation must change. Otherwise, the bereaved will be denied the service to which they are entitled at a most vulnerable time in their lives; the urban renaissance will be deprived of an opportunity to restore places of meaning and history in the heart of our cities; and the nation as a whole will face the loss of a unique recreational and historical resource. Our cemeteries are too important for this to be allowed to happen. This Report should prefigure a concerted effort on the part of all those with responsibility for, and interest in, cemeteries to restore them to their rightful place in our national life.

254  Q12 Back

255  Ev p.21; p.67; p.68; p.136; Q3 Back

256  Ev p.57; p.68; p.136 Back

257  See para 16 above Back

258  op cit. See also Q208. Back

259  Q227 Back

260  QQ228-231 Back

261  See footnote 106 above. Back

262  Ev p.213; Q208; Q492; Burial Space Needs in London and Planning for Burial Space in London, op cit Back

263  Q97 Back

264  Ev p.40; p.193; Q27; QQ327-328 Back

265  Ev p.39; Q302. See also ev p.67. Back

266  QQ357-359.  Back

267  QQ186-187, 562-563 Back

268  Reusing Old Graves: A Report on Popular British Attitudes, Douglas Davies and Alastair Shaw, Shaw & Sons, 1995 Back

269  QQ202-265 Back

270  Ev p.21; p.191; &c. Back

271  QQ212-218 Back

272  Ev p.70; Q70; QQ219-221 Back

273  Q219 Back

274  Q546 Back

275  Ev p.27 Back

276  Ev pp. 132-133 Back

277  Ev p.70; p.76; p.92; p.194 Back

278  Q289 Back

279  Ev p.194; Q289 Back

280  Ev pp. 135-136; p.157; p.194 Back

281  Ev p.139 Back

282  Q236 Back

283  Ev p.91; pp. 119-120 Back

284  Ev p.133 Back

285  Ev p.194; Q235; QQ488-489. See also Planning for Burial Space in London, op cit, p.17 Back

286  Ev p.138; p.200; Q15; Q235; Q451; Q498. Back

287  QQ491-492 Back

288  Q492 Back

289  Ev p.13; p.57; p.195; Q11. See also ev pp. 56, 57; p.64; pp. 67-68; p.70; p.102. Back

290  QQ512, 563 Back

291  HC Deb (2000-01) 26 Feb, c689 Back

292  Q532 Back

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