Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by Bath and North East Somerset Council (CEM 09)

"the environmental, historical and cultural significance of cemeteries for local communities"

"environmental"

  Open space accessible to local people: Closed burial grounds in the Bath and North East Somerset Council area form an important part of the green open space, often in built up areas that are accessible by local people for quiet enjoyment or to visit relatives graves. Closed burial grounds usually contain mature trees and shrubs and buildings that contribute to the local character of the area.

  Wildlife interest: B&NES have recently completed a Best Value Review of its cemeteries and crematorium service, this has highlighted a number of issues and opportunities. The Council's Biodiversity Action plan included proposals to carry out an audit and further develop environmentally sympathetic management of cemeteries. Past wildlife surveys have revealed the importance of cemeteries to biodiversity.

  Cemeteries are often relatively undisturbed and can shelter locally rare species such as a species of bramble found in Abbey Cemetery, Bath.

  The different types of stone from which the monuments are made support a wide range of lichens and mosses. The trees, shrubs and grass provide habitats for small mammals, birds and insects. Lansdown and Haycombe Cemeteries, Bath, contain remnants of limestone grassland, the survival of which is increasingly threatened by development and intensive agricultural practices.

  Conflicts can arise here between the interests of those who would prefer to see cemeteries maintained intensively and those who would prefer a more wildlife friendly management regime.

"historical"

  The historical importance is enormous; these are the places where the famous, the infamous and those who died for their country are interred. Here in Bath, a former Cemetery Supervisor has produced a leaflet detailing the holders of VCs interred in Bath cemeteries. A surprising number of forgotten heroes. St James Cemetery is itself a testament to the war as some of the graves bears shrapnel wounds from the Bath Blitz.

  Closed burial grounds and other cemeteries often contain monuments to important local people, for example William Beckford is buried in Lansdown Cemetery and his grave is visited by people who come to visit his Tower next door.

  Abbey Cemetery is in Widcombe Parish and the Widcombe Association takes a keen interest in Abbey Cemetery. Abbey Cemetery was designed by a Victorian pioneer of cemetery layout, J.C. Loudon, who considered that cemeteries when full should become green places for perpetual public use. He proposed that they should include wide public paths and be planted with suitable trees and shrubs so that the public could enjoy them for peaceful contemplation. Members of the Widcombe Association History Group have conducted research into the lives of the people buried there and have organised guided walks. They designed an interpretation board for the entrance which informs about the history, wildlife and historical and landscape importance of the cemetery.

  Local history and genealogy groups often take an interest in their local cemetery. In Bath, The Beckford Tower Trust are surveying and recording important monuments in Lansdown Cemetery and are publishing a heritage trail of the Cemetery which will be used to add value of the visits to William Beckford's Tower, a popular tourist attraction in the Bath area.

  The monuments made from local and imported stone are a valuable resource for the study of geology.

  The monuments in many cemeteries, closed and open are of historical and architectural importance. Abbey Cemetery is included in the 1996 Register of Parks and Gardens of Historic Interest and many of the cemetery monuments in Bath and elsewhere in the B&NES area are on the DCMS list of buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest.

"cultural"

  Reforms in the methods of managing the disposal of the dead are reflected in the layout and design of burial grounds. Many of the Victorian cemeteries are reflections of the prevailing social order of the time. St James Cemetery for example has the poor buried in the wetter, liable to flood areas, where as the gentry were buried in the higher and drier parts of the site. The inscriptions in the monuments also reflect the contemporary attitudes to death.

THE CONDITION OF EXISTING CEMETERIES

The responsibilities of Local Authorities for Closed Burial Grounds

  Local authorities are obliged to take on the management of closed burial grounds if requested to do so by the Parish. There are 29 closed burial grounds and two open cemeteries in the B&NES Council District. The management and maintenance of the closed burial grounds is mostly the responsibility of the local authority. The local authority are obliged to keep main paths open, the burial grounds clear of regenerated scrub and to inspect all walls, steps and other structures on a regular basis to ensure that they are safe. Work to make these structures safe is the responsibility of the Council.

THE RESPONSIBILITY OF CHURCH AUTHORITIES AND OTHERS

  The monuments and gravestones remain the responsibility and in the ownership of the occupants and their descendants. It was often the case that a capital sum was left by the deceased to generate an income in perpetuity for the maintenance of the plot. The sums were often small and through inflation are not now sufficient for the purpose. In some cases the Parishes have added all these small sums together and retained them for other purposes, they are not usually passed over to the local authority along with the closed burial ground. It is difficult to get from the Church Authorities how big these funds are and for what purpose they are being currently used. When monuments cease to be safe irrespective of their architectural merits the Council has only a duty to make them safe, which is usually laying stones flat, or placing them around the edge of the burial ground. Over a period of time this results in the degradation of the character, historical and cultural interest of the site.

  The Parochial Church Councils retains the responsibility for the care of trees that were planted in closed burial grounds which they often have difficulty in funding.

THE ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE DETR

  One of the issues requiring clarification is the extent to which local authorities are entitled to interfere with disintegrating monuments or sinking graves. A clear direction is required as to where the responsibilities lie between Parochial Church Councils, Local Authorities and relatives of the deceased.

  Also the issue of fees (see below).

LONG TERM PLANNING OF NEW CEMETERIES AND BURIAL SPACE

  Local Authorities have no method of predicting the number of closed burial grounds that it will be required to assume the management of (and the associated costs) in the future.

THE FUNDING AND ECONOMIC VIABILITY OF CEMETERIES

  In the B&NES area the income from the Crematorium at Haycombe Cemetery, Bath and the income from burials in re-opened graves in closed burial grounds and new graves in open cemeteries, supports the management of all the cemeteries as well as contributing to the general council income.

  Funds under the administration of Parochial Church Councils specifically donated for the upkeep of graves in perpetuity need to be identified and transferred to the Local Authorities along with re-opening fees collected and kept by the Church.

  There are insufficient funds for the adequate management of closed burial grounds. These are not sufficient to devise and implement the management plans that are an essential tool of the management. People who visit the graves of their relatives are often disappointed in the untidy appearance of the cemeteries. Management plans for individual cemeteries would ensure that the historical, cultural and wildlife interests of each site are protected as well as them making cemeteries pleasant places for all visitors. However as the specific purpose of a cemetery is for burial, additional funds are required if the site is to be managed to take account of the increased costs of these added benefits.

  Closed burial grounds often contain buildings such as chapels that are at present boarded up to prevent misuse. If partnership funding was available they could be made available for an alternative use.

  Closed burial grounds are subject to vandalism. A recent attack at one B&NES cemetery caused tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage to headstones. The council can only make safe and cannot afford remedial work; a lottery grant will be essential to repair the extensive damage. CCTV has been installed at cemeteries considered at high risk.

  In theory, Landfill Tax is available for funding management plans for individual cemeteries. This funding would also be available for other works not the legal responsibility of local authorities. This could include work to improve access, to aid understanding. A Local Authority can only apply for landfill tax funding if they have a landfill site within 10 miles of the cemetery. The drawing up of Management Plans for closed burial grounds may not have a high priority for Environmental Bodies or for the landfill operators who finance them. External partnership funding is essential for such projects as the reinstatement of railings removed in the war and the essential restoration of chapel buildings if cemeteries are to be maintained for wider public benefit.

November 2000


 
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