Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CEM 23)


  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was founded in 1917 by Royal Charter and is thereby responsible to its member governments (United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa) for the commemoration and care of the graves of those who died whilst serving with Commonwealth forces during the First and Second World Wars. In the United Kingdom the Commission is responsible for more than 170,000 graves in over 12,000 burial grounds. Only four of these are war cemeteries maintained directly by the Commission's staff; the remainder are public and private cemeteries and churchyards of every denomination and therefore the Commission has a deep interest in their maintenance. Some cemeteries contain groups or plots of war burials, whilst others have just a single war grave. Some war graves are marked with the Commission's familiar war pattern headstone, but there are many in family graves marked by private memorials. (These may not be readily identifiable as war graves to the owning or controlling authority and this can cause problems for the Commission.)

  The widespread nature of the Commission's commitment in the United Kingdom results from the practice of allowing the next of kin of servicemen and women who died in this country to have their loved ones buried either in central military cemeteries or plots or in local burial grounds. The Commission's inspectors check the condition of the war graves on a regular basis and to deal with maintenance the Commission has agreements with local authorities, private contractors and interested groups and individuals to look after the routine horticultural aspects, while using its own staff to clean, replumb and replace the official war pattern headstones, and for other major work.

  The Commission subscribes to the principle in the Geneva Conventions that war burials should not be disturbed except for reasons of overriding public necessity, a principle which has also been endorsed by the Ecclesiastical Courts in relation to consecrated ground. The Commission endeavours to protect its interests in a variety of ways, including acquisition of burial rights in individual graves, grants of various rights of control and maintenance and ownership of some cemeteries—although the latter is very unusual in the United Kingdom. It also seeks statutory protection, petitioning against (usually) private bills and negotiating protective provisions. There is now some specific statutory protection for the Commission in the Local Authorities' Cemeteries Order, the Pastoral Measure the Disused Burial grounds (Amendment) Act 1981 and other legislation. This is supplemented by other arrangements such as those with Diocesan Registrars to obtain notice of all faculty proceedings affecting graves in consecrated ground (including consecrated ground in local authority cemeteries), and with the Home Office in relation to closure to burials, applications for exhumation licences etc.

  Criticism is often levelled by families or old comrades that the war graves in public or private cemeteries or churchyards are not as well tended as those in dedicated war cemeteries. The uniformity of the war pattern headstones in the latter creates an impression of orderliness and the Commission, as the controlling authority, is able to employ its own staff to achieve maintenance to a high standard.

  Except in relation to the few dedicated war cemeteries and specific plots of war graves, the differing circumstances in the United Kingdom prevent these standards being achieved. The Commission seeks to keep its headstones clean, legible and plumb and the surrounding areas neat and tidy, but such good work can be lost if the remainder of the site is overgrown. Over the years the Commission has detected a reduction in the resources put into the maintenance of cemeteries and churchyards by their controlling authorities and have tried to counter this and bring about improvements through tighter specifications in maintenance contracts and by seeking to engage the interest and involvement of schools and youth groups, including cadets and service related organisations.

  The Commission therefore welcomes this inquiry and looks forward to an increase in both interest and resources in communities to achieve higher overall standards in cemeteries.


  That cemeteries should be preserved is beyond doubt. They represent an invaluable amenity both locally and more widely, whether as a green oasis within an urban environment, a haven for flora and fauna or for reasons of history, heritage or culture. The war graves and memorials certainly have their place in this. Many of the features built by the Commission in cemeteries were designed by prominent architects, reflect the history of a country at war and increasingly are being recognised and listed so as to aid preservation.

  The presence of war graves and other Commission structures in cemeteries adds to the history of the local community. Examples of this are as follows:

 (a)  The individual grave

  Boy Cornwell died of wounds after the Battle of Jutland. At 16 years and 4 months he is the youngest Victoria Cross winner in our care and the third youngest to win the award. He is buried in Manor Park Cemetery, East Ham, and his private memorial is looked after by local school children.

 (b)  A large number of graves in one place

  A plot was set aside by the City of Cambridge in 1942 to accommodate casualties from the Air Force stations set up in the Eastern counties during the war, included Bomber Command bases in Lincolnshire and Fighter Command stations in Norfolk and Suffolk. These 770 graves therefore demonstrate the effort that went into the war in the air between 1939 and 1945.

 (c)  Graves over a wider area

  During the 1939-45 War the county of Sussex was in the forefront of the Battle of Britain. There were Royal Air Force Stations at Clymping, Ford, Tangmere, Thorney Island, West Hampnett and Wilmington, and a Royal Navy Air Station at Ford. There was a Bomb Disposal camp at Broadbridge Heath; Polish army camps at Billinghurst and Horsham and prisoner of war camps at Booker Hall, Hove and Billinghurst. The many military hospitals set up during the two wars included 11 in Brighton, 6 in Eastbourne, 5 in Bognor Regis and 4 each in Chichester, Hastings, Haywards Heath and Hove. The history of the county is reflected in the 1,657 war burials commemorated in 231 different places and most other counties have their own stories of great interest to tell.

 (d)  Notable features

  Many of the structures built by the Commission form focal points in cemeteries, particularly the cross of sacrifice, a symbolic feature, and the memorials carrying names of people who are buried in the cemetery or in the area, all reflecting the history of a country at war.

  The cultural significance for local communities of war graves in cemeteries is demonstrated by a number of means. The Commission's headstones tell many individual stories and illustrate the wide variety of people who died, men and women, young and old, allies and enemies, all of different creeds, ranks and nationalities. The graves are the subject of individual and collective remembrance at various times of the year and the ceremonies can reflect different national heritage with separate ceremonies for Australian and New Zealand casualties in April, British in November, and other nationalities on their national days.

  Often the environmental impact of cemeteries lies in the fact that they may represent the only quiet and green space in a local community, particularly those located in densely populated urban areas. Any area with grass, trees and plants offers the opportunity for visitors to pause and reflect, but the provision of such areas in a cemetery context must come about as a result of positive action, rather than by simply allowing a return to nature.


  The Commission therefore seeks active management rather than mere preservation. In many cases it is able to work with controlling authorities who have a regular regime and satisfactory conditions obtain. However, there are others where conditions are far from satisfactory, usually as a result of the absence of an effective controlling authority. These may be privately owned cemeteries or burials grounds linked to churches or chapels where the congregation has died out, and the problem comes down to a lack of money and resources. These sites usually date back very many years and contain monuments of enormous historical value to their communities. Their neglect represents an irreversible loss.

  The decline of such sites can be seen through their history. When first set up, they were either viable businesses with funds generated from burial and/or cremations or active parts of a small but interested community. When no more burials can be accommodated or when the community dwindles or disappears, there is no more income in terms of money or interest to keep up regular maintenance and decline sets in.

  It is at this stagnant stage that the site can take on another function and be seen as an open space offering amenity value. This can be a managed space, in the form of a park or garden with the monuments removed or moved to the perimeter, or a conservation area for wildflowers and wildlife, which can include the retention and marking of some of the main interesting and historical monuments. Many of these schemes attract funding more easily than the straightforward maintenance of the site as a cemetery. Provided the war graves remain accessible and their surroundings are reasonable, the Commission is content, but there must be proper management. Conservation must not be confused with neglect. A neglected cemetery does not become a haven for flora and fauna. A narrow range tends to dominate, eg self sown sycamores, brambles and even undesirable species such as knotweed, to the exclusion of much else of value. True conservation requires just as much if not more management as the traditional style of cemetery maintenance. If cemeteries are not adequately maintained, memorials quickly deteriorate and in due course are totally lost due to damage by trees, ivy etc. The value of a cemetery in terms of its history, heritage and environment is lost just as much as if its land had been used for commercial development.

  When neglect is seen local concern is loudly expressed and the Commission is often viewed, wrongly, as an organisation which can bring about a solution. Our concerns are analogous to those of any family with graves in the particular site. We wish to have our graves well maintained in well managed surroundings, but the Commission's funds can be spent only on the areas containing war graves. In some cases it proves impossible to find anyone willing to maintain access to these graves and the Commission has to divert staff from other duties to prevent graves being lost.

  Examples of the problem places described above include Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol and Ford Park Cemetery in Plymouth, both large privately owned cemeteries where protests have been loud and long. At the other end of the scale in terms of size are the chapelyards in Yorkshire and South Wales. Highgate Cemetery in London is an example of a cemetery managed by a friends group which does excellent work in much of the cemetery but there remain large areas where war graves stand in a wilderness.

  Mention must of course be made of the many cemeteries and other burial grounds which are actively managed and provide a fitting setting for the war and other graves. The City of London Cemetery at Manor Park is one of the best maintained in the capital and provides a high level of service to the extent of two full-time Commissionaires to direct visitors and nappy changing facilities at various locations. Elsewhere municipal and church authorities, which have funds available, are able to establish good maintenance regimes through contractors or through their own staff or volunteers and the Commission happily contributes in respect of the war graves.

  It is perhaps worth mentioning the Commission's experience in maintaining small numbers of graves in public cemeteries in other countries. In France and Belgium the preference is for hard surfaces with little horticulture and these can be kept clean by liberal applications of weedkiller. In the Netherlands cemeteries are more like those in Britain although virtually all are well managed. In Germany and Denmark standards are extremely high with horticulture often of a fine standard, but greater demands are placed on families to maintain their graves.


  The Commission would very much like to see all burial grounds maintained to a reasonable standard by their owning or controlling authorities, before a steep decline develops requiring extensive and expensive restoration. A good deal of valuable history has already been destroyed or lost. Burial grounds, as the resting place for those formerly part of the community, are a very important part of each community's culture and heritage. The Commission is currently considering ways in which all sections of local communities, particularly the young, can become more aware of and involved with war graves, but to be successful there is a need for wider involvement with and commitment to cemeteries and their maintenance generally. The Commission would therefore welcome anything which can be done to reflect this and thus bring about a better standard of maintenance.

  The Commission greatly appreciates the efforts of all those actively involved in the maintenance of burial grounds and hopes that greater assistance can be given to them. It is aware of the different views on preservation and maintenance and the variety of styles which can be adopted. It is by no means opposed to alternative uses, particularly of smaller burial grounds, such as nature or wildlife reserves, provided that fit provision can be made for the war graves, ie keeping them clear and accessible.

  The Commission considers that the various strands of legislation controlling burial grounds are not sufficiently clear or uniform and considerable benefit would flow from reviewing and codifying burial legislation—bringing together for instance different provisions in relation to dealing with graves under the planning regulations, exhumation licences, the Pastoral Measure, Open Spaces legislation and the Disused Burial Grounds legislation. The Disused Burial Grounds (Amendment) Act 1981 in particular is regarded as unsatisfactory. Originally conceived in order to put other denominations in the same position as the Church of England in relation to development and alternative uses for its churchyards, it actually goes very much further because there is no control over development corresponding to the safeguards represented by the Church Commissioners and the Privy Council. This omission should be rectified. In addition the provisions of the Act are tortuous and difficult to understand. Such rationalisation would assist all those dealing with burial grounds by creating a more readily accessible and simplified form of requirements (including public advertising of proposals) for dealing with them.

  The Commission is aware of long running discussions about the possibility of reusing cemeteries, including the so called dig and deepen proposal, exhuming the remains, burying them deeper to enable new burials to be made above the previous ones. The Commission has some reservations about this in that it would usually amount to disturbance of human remains for reasons wholly unconnected with either the burial or the families concerned. Simply because remains are buried again in approximately the same place does perhaps lend unwarranted respectability to this proposal, but the fact remains that burials are disturbed. The Commission's prime concern though is 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.

  For the problem cemeteries in towns and cities, the Commission must look to local authorities, because they represent resourced, functioning organisations with which the Commission can work in achieving its aims at many places, but there are others where similar assistance is needed. The Commission is aware that some local authorities have tried to resist taking over responsibility for maintenance of closed burial grounds and have sought the repeal of Section 215 of the Local Government Act 1972 which provides for this. The Commission would not be in favour of such a repeal as it feels a local authority has to play a full part in the preservation and maintenance of what is undeniably a local amenity, often of great value in its own right and often of great historical interest as part of the community. For the same reasons the Commission would welcome a greater willingness for local authorities to take on responsibility for other burial grounds which are no longer maintained by their owners, particularly those privately owned burial grounds where the owners have ceased to exist through liquidation of the original private cemetery company or have simply ceased maintenance. Current problems of this nature exist in Bristol and Plymouth and the example of Edinburgh City Council, in acquiring six cemeteries formerly in private ownership, restoring and maintaining them, is to be commended.

  Central government may not have the knowledge or means to maintain cemeteries. Local authorities are clearly best placed to take on maintenance and prevent deterioration of their local amenities as well as making the best use of them. The condition of most burial grounds in Scotland, for which local authorities have had responsibility for many years, and of a great many elsewhere in the United Kingdom, stand witness to that. The Commission has some 6,000 contracts for maintenance of war graves at different sites in the United Kingdom, many of them with local authorities, and many work well, but it can be difficult to establish clear lines of responsibility and accountability for the management of cemetery services. Sometimes there appears to be insufficient co-ordination between those employees based on site carrying out the work and those responsible for agreeing and charging for cemetery services centrally. The introduction of the "Best Value" initiative, while laudable in principle, has exacerbated such problems as it has altered centres of responsibility and accountability in many cases. Although consultation is a key element of the initiative, it is not clear that this is carried out as widely as it might be.

  Although the solution to the problem of cemetery maintenance most naturally lies with local authorities, it is inevitable that they will need funding and direction from central government to deal with such a major commitment.


  In presenting this memorandum the Commission has not sought to comment on the availability of lottery funding or the economic viability of cemeteries. It is fortunate in its own activities to receive adequate funding from its six member governments and it has enormous sympathy with those who wish to maintain cemeteries properly but lack the resources to do so.

  The Commission sincerely hopes that this inquiry will lead to a greater awareness of the value of cemeteries to local communities, greater involvement of communities in their maintenance and increased resources to carry out the work.

December 2000

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