Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by Calderdale MBC Funeral Services (CEM 38)

1.0  THE ENVIRONMENTAL, HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE OF CEMETERIES TO LOCAL COMMUNITIES

  1.1  A study of cemetery design reveals much about the history of taste, social history and style in gardening in Britain from Victorian times to the present day. Cemeteries are also valuable open space resources in busy built up areas and a resource for the study of local and family history.

  Until the 19th century, cemeteries in Britain were rare, and although burial or entombment of bodies was universal, this was generally done in churches, churchyards or private mausolea. By the early 1800's, not only were parish churchyards often unable to accommodate the increasing number of dead bodies, but many non-conformists wished to be buried outside the Anglican Church.

  The rapidly growing population of Victorian Britain meant that few social issues were more fundamental than the disposal of the dead, and the problem was particularly acute in the industrial towns of the north, where urban hygiene was of particular concern.

  As well as being a major social benefit, these cemeteries were also seen as major civic amenities on a par with parks, libraries, art galleries and museums, and with the same recreational and educational implications. They were the joint products of landscape design, architecture and sculpture and provided a valuable insight into the attitudes and beliefs of our Victorian ancestors. Often planted with specimen trees and shrubs, they were not only practical solutions to provide resting places benefiting the status of the departed, but were also designed to cultivate the intellect with their botanical riches and variety of monuments, whose morally uplifting inscriptions would also be educational and civilising. In terms of writing the social history of a town, the cemetery should be seen on a par with all the other Victorian developments, such as mills, town halls and public parks.

  As well as providing windows on the past, the location of many cemeteries in the heart of urban areas means that they now provide places of tranquil recreation and urban green space, with the added potential to create wildlife refuges and urban nature reserves within easy reach of the local population. Their biodiversity can be enhanced by sensitive, low maintenance planting schemes and the potential exists to further develop this potential where resources for maintenance are available.

  1.2  A reserve of open space, free from "active" recreation, providing quietness and calm.

  1.3  Helps to break up an otherwise continuous urban area—a habitat for flora and fauna. Older cemetery areas with large dense memorials encourage shade-tolerant plant species etc.

  1.4  Provide a record of the differing and developing styles and construction in:

    —  landscaping;

    —  memorials, artistic form and materials;

    —  associated buildings, ie chapels, lodges and offices.

  1.5  Provide evidence, through the size and type of memorials, and position within the cemetery of:—

    —  Changes in emphasis on social standing and achievement;

    —  levelling of wealth and income;

    —  changes in mortality statistics.

  1.6  The contrast between old Victorian cemeteries and later layouts gives tangible evidence of:—

    —  The greater resources made available for cemetery provision in former times and, presumably, the greater importance placed on layout, presentation and security.

    —  The effort made by relations and visitors in maintaining graves and the sacrifice of leisure time they were prepared to make for that purpose.

    —  The lower cost of labour in former times, available for cemetery activity (no doubt a significant factor in this "levelling" of wealth).

  1.7  Our older cemeteries were created by a combination of attitudes, materials, art form, resources, social emphasis and interest which, in the main, can never be repeated. In our major towns and cities are the monuments to the lives and works of the great industrialists whose efforts made Britain the "workshop of the world", and the great politicians and public figures who formed a society of fairness and balance which is the envy of the world. Already these are vandalised and neglected with no importance placed upon them and consequently no regard and respect for the effort and achievements made.

  1.8  To reduce this neglect, to commemorate and respect the final resting place of those whose lives have had such impact on the community must be a worthy cause and must improve the attitude of the community at large. Such a cause must justify the input of resources and ongoing security.

  1.9  In addition to the cultural values of commemoration and memorials, style, landscaping and layout, it is necessary to consider the effect of long standing cultural traditions in relation to bereavement.

  1.10  There is no doubt that the following aspects contribute to acceptance of bereavement and readjustment to it:—

    —  a place for the disposal of the body which has sanctity, is secure and treated with care and respect;

    —  a place for quiet meditation and remembrance;

    —  a place where there is an outlet for the action of caring. For instance, the provision of an expensive monument is frequently more satisfying to the bereaved when the cost involves some degree of sacrifice;

    —  a cemetery that has longevity, ie without the threat of future disturbance;

    —  a cemetery that is an accepted part of the community, which the bereaved can accept in advance (and relate to religious beliefs) and look towards without criticism of the standards to expect.

  1.11  In addition to these points, concern for the environment leads a growing proportion of the public to favour cemeteries which promote woodland or other natural features. Thus the life that has passed promotes, establishes and secures new wildlife, mitigating to some degree the loss in bereavement.

  1.12  In all cultures, the place of burial is hallowed; this is rightly so. To respect and care for the final resting place of the dead, a place of great importance to the surviving relatives, is a sign of care for the feeling of others and should not be absent in any culture. The modern phenomenon of vandalism and destruction within cemeteries is alien to any established culture, it is harmful to the community, and requires control despite the necessary cost of doing so.

2.0  CONDITION OF EXISTING CEMETERIES

  2.1  Calderdale MBC operates an estimated 90 acres (36 hectares) of traditional cemeteries. Most have a high density of memorials and some 40 acres is on steeply sloping ground.

  2.2  The general condition does not cause complaints from the public, and standards are considered good in relation to the resources made available for maintenance. Areas worthy of comment are:

 (i)   Grass Cutting

  The obstruction caused by memorials, the disturbance and settlement of ground, the placing of objects on graves by relatives and the seasonal variation in grass growth make it impossible with current resources to keep grass constantly cut to a level which the public find acceptable.

  The rapid grass growth of early summer is, however, a transient phenomenon. When growth slows down, the close-cutting will be restored. We believe that it is wiser to concentrate resources on the more important issues of preserving buildings, walls, paths and drives, and to keeping memorials sound and safe, than to waste resources on counteracting temporary long grass.

  Nevertheless, the public at large (in ignorance of the long-term issues) demand close grass cutting regardless of the consequences of that misplaced priority.

 (ii)   Ground Levelling

  Settlement of the ground after interment is both short and long-term. Both give additional workload in back filling and returfing, but in particular the settlement due to collapse of coffins after many years of burial poses particular problems. By the time collapse occurs the area may be heavily memorialised and, in fact, settlement may adversely effect this memorial itself, particularly if it is becoming unsound.

 (iii)   Paths and Drives

  In common with most burial authorities, paths and drives pose problems. As cemeteries get larger, paths and drives are increasingly necessary. However, many were not made to accept modern traffic and heavy cemetery equipment, and it is difficult to justify the high cost of upgrading and maintenance with the degree of use made of the facility.

 (iv)   Maintenance of Chapels, Lodges etc

  The majority of chapels and lodges in cemeteries have been built to a high standard, both in construction and aesthetics. Maintenance has been minimal because of the relatively high cost, and many now face demolition. Calderdale MBC has lost two such buildings in recent years.

  Similar comments apply to cemetery lodges. Almost all cemeteries have been provided with one or two lodges—and some with more. These buildings provided a useful form of security. Almost universally, local authorities have imposed rents in recent years, which have discouraged tenancy by cemetery personnel. The majority are now either disposed of, or tenanted by persons unconnected with the cemeteries. This is a serious loss of security and usefulness, and defeats the object of the lodges' existence.

 (v)   Vandalism

  By far the greatest cause of low standards in most older municipal cemeteries is "vandalism", which is exacerbated by poor security, eg cemetery lodges not functional, no patrolling and poor maintenance/removal of walls, hedges and railings.

  Available resources are concentrated on the repairs of damage, litter clearance etc, instead of planned maintenance or improvements.

 (vi)   Memorials

  Recent injuries to people have focused attention on the safety of cemetery memorials. Whilst burial authorities have produced income from memorial fees, this has inevitably been used to offset operational costs and never invested for future costs of removing or making safe the memorials which are damaged or fall to disrepair. Whilst responsibility should rest with the memorial owner, inevitably the owner cannot be traced.

  Calderdale MBC could have responsibility for ensuring that at least 35,000 memorials are safe. Inspection, say twice per year, would give a full-time employee only 1.5 minutes per inspection, with no time for either reporting or rectification!

3.0  ROLES OF DETR AND OTHERS

  3.1  The co-ordination and simplification of the legislation relating to Cemetery provision and operation, in the form of the Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977, was extremely useful to the Authority.

  This statutory instrument should be extended to strengthen the following aspects:

    (i)  The right of the authority to remove any article (whether construed as a memorial or not) placed in the cemetery and which could be unsafe, obstructive or which detracts from the standard of maintenance and appearance that it is desired to achieve.

    (ii)  Where removal of memorials is concerned (see schedule 3, para 12, line 2) other options may usefully be suggested in place of the words "remove from the cemetery and destroy". Many memorials were constructed from quarried material of superior quality unavailable today, and which could be usefully re-cycled after removal of inscriptions. Furthermore, authorities should be encouraged to repair and re-erect memorials of cultural, historic or structural interest, and to invest a proportion of their initial income for future maintenance.

  3.2  The disposal by burial (whether as normal interment or by the interment of cremated remains) is such a fundamental function of every society, and has such future land use and maintenance implications, that it should be the responsibility of the DETR to provide and maintain a central register of good practice. This could be performed in conjunction with the Institute of Burial, Cremation Administration (IBCA), the confederation of Burial Authorities (CBA) and the Association of Burial Authorities (ABA).

  3.3  Once established, the central register of good practice could not only assist and advise local authorities, it would have the expertise to better perform a function of inspection and assessment on the necessary occasions.

4.0  LONG TERM PLANNING FOR NEW CEMETERIES AND BURIAL SPACE

  4.1  The population of Calderdale is relatively static with a relatively static and predictable number of disposals each year.

  4.2  Long-term planning for burial space has not been undertaken but will have to be considered within the next 3 to 5 years. Items of which the Council is already aware and will influence the planning exercise are:

    (i)  The need to research the number of used but unpurchased graves, which still have available capacity.

    (ii)  The spaces available which are unsuited to full interment but which are suitable for children's graves or for cremated remains.

    (iii)  The option of providing a low maintenance cemetery for those who will favour that facility and to retain existing traditional cemeteries for those who require traditional memorials, etc.

    (iv)  The possibility of woodland or moorland burial areas, with centralised memorial facilities leaving a more environmentally acceptable burial area which can be returned to forestry or agricultural/grazing use in the distant future.

    (v)  The establishment of ecological cemetery areas with reduced maintenance and possibly grazing as a means of vegetation control.

    (vi)  The possibility of encouraging cremation and to provide large, low density scattering areas in parkland as an alternative to burial. The natural assimilation of remains in low-density scattering allows re-use of the land, which together with a centralised form of memorial (eg Book of Remembrance or electronic commemoration) would give a facility of almost infinite capacity and availability.

  4.3  The Council is also conscious of the requirement of minority groups, which are well established in the Calderdale area. The grave sizes required, together with the requirement for single shallow depth burials, causes 3 times the area of cemetery land to be used, by comparison to that used by the indigenous population, when projected over a 10-20 year period.

5.0  THE MANAGEMENT AND PROVISION OF CEMETERY SERVICES

  5.1  The provision of cemeteries by local authorities, mainly due to the influence of the Burial Acts 1852-1956 and the Public Health (Interments) Act 1879 was a logical and necessary step at that time.

  Whether the service should remain with the local authority is questionable.

  5.2  The service is specialised. It sits comfortably alongside the provision of Crematoria and the two facilities work well as a combined department for practical reasons. The service combines well with the provision of mortuary services, the maintenance of closed churchyards, the provision of funerals under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.

  5.3  Although a specialised subject, the elements involved are diverse; legal requirements, detailed records and administration, horticulture, grounds maintenance, environmental issues and civil works are all involved. Whilst cemeteries are part of a local community (and should always stay that way) there would be advantage in making the overall administration, funding and training etc a regional function, with all aspects and specialists "under one roof".

  5.4  At the present time, the availability of experienced and specialised managers for cemeteries is limited; in the main because of unattractive career prospects and also because cemeteries often form only a minor part of a large, diverse local authority department. We believe that a dedicated organisation would provide better career prospects. If also combined with more enthusiastic support of the IBCA education organisation, the UK would be provided ultimately with a better standard of management of its burial service.

  5.5  Other aspects of provision are:

    (i)  It would seem reasonable to expect minority groups to provide their own facilities where their requirements vary significantly from those accepted by the indigenous population. It would also seem reasonable for the facilities to be inspected periodically to ensure that legal requirements (eg depth of burial) are being observed.

    (ii)  Whilst private companies have provided large cemeteries in the past, these have only survived whilst there has been ample income from the sale of burial rights etc. The lack of viability in the larger, older traditional cemeteries will keep them in the public domain for the foreseeable future.

    (iii)  Cemeteries could be established on a trust basis.

6.0  FUNDING AND ECONOMIC VIABILITY

  6.1  Unless a cemetery has:—

    (i)  a low maintenance and operational cost

    (ii)  income from the sale of new graves (ie burial rights) then it will not be economically viable. In the case of large, older, traditional cemeteries such as those in Calderdale, those conditions are not met and to increase the fees for interments to a level which is economic, would be unacceptable to potential users.

  6.2  The cemeteries of Calderdale in common with most other similarly placed authorities, run at a deficit, ie £102,000.00 per annum at current expenditure levels.

  6.3  In these circumstances, factors such as vandalism, rubbish-dumping and unauthorised items placed in the cemetery provide a severe impediment to resources which are already stretched.

  6.4  It is in the heavily populated and older industrialised areas where the greatest areas of difficult to maintain, traditional cemeteries are found. It is also unfortunate that in these areas the greatest number of disused burial grounds or churchyards also exist, which ultimately devolve to the local authority for maintenance. This imposes yet a further burden.

  6.5  Funding from sources such as the National Lottery would be useful, but controls must be in place to ensure that the funding provided is used wisely and addresses the main problem. For instance, funds provided to cut long grass in May would be forgotten by September! Funds would be most useful which:

    (i)  increase security physically in the form of rebuilding walls, gates and railings or indirectly by re-establishing residences on site

    (ii)  increase interest in the cemetery; assistance by setting up interest groups

    (iii)  invest in refurbishing cemetery chapels which have potential for increased use

    (iv)  assist replacement of paths and drives

    (v)  allow inspection of memorials and repair of those with historic interest etc

    (vi)  allow research into, and survey of, new cemetery areas and layouts and possible new cemetery purchase

    (vii)  permit the re-binding of ancient registers and re-drawing of plans.

December 2000


 
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