Memorandum by Dr Tony Walter (CEM 45)
Though cemeteries provide positive values such
as urban green space, and may be of historical or architectural
significance, these benefits are subservient to the following:
The prime purpose of a cemetery is
to bury the dead of the locality.
Its prime significance is as a memento
mori, a reminder that we will die that challenges citizens to
consider their true values and motivates them to live fully in
In Britain, unlike the rest of Europe and even
the USA, the prime purpose and prime significance of cemeteries
are in danger of being lost.
Throughout the Middle Ages throughout western
Europe, the dead were buried in or around the local church. Old
bones made way for new burials, rendering the system sustainable
for centuries. It became unsustainable for two reasons:
(a) From the 17c, the fashion arose of seeing
the grave as family property, along with the desire of the middle
classes for a perpetual grave. The churchyard above ground began
to fill up with perpetual memorials.
(b) From the late 18c, the population explosion
meant that new burials were uncovering not old bones but still
rotting fleshhence the burial crisis of the early to mid
19c. The urban churchyard below ground was now also full.
In other European countries, the 19c burial
crisis was resolved by creating new cemeteries in which re-use
of graves was not, as before, ad hoc, but carefully planned. Leases
were given for a set number of years. I have come across as few
as eight years, and as many as 50, the period being determined
by local soil conditions and the local death rate. After this
period, the lease can be renewed (as often as the family liked
and were willing to pay for); otherwise, the grave became available
for a new family. The consequence is that, throughout Europe today,
many communities of quite high population density retain a local
cemetery which sustains the ongoing burial of local residents.
By definition, no grave is an unwanted grave; they are all tended;
vandalism is low; revenue continues to come in; and the prime
purpose of the cemetery can be fulfilled. Those who wish a perpetual
grave may buy onebut they pay a realistic price for it.
In the UK, by contrast, the 19c burial crisis
was solved by creating large out-of-town cemeteries with perpetual
graves (Curl 1980). Partly because of the fear of the anatomist
(Richardson 1989), even the poor aspired to a single and undisturbable
grave. Cemeteries began to fill up; as towns developed, the out-of-town
cemetery was no longer out-of-town. Revenue began to decline as
the number of remaining available graves declined, at the same
time that surrounding land values were increasing. The urban cemetery
began to become a liability. Some of the private cemetery companies
were taken over by municipalities, who in the mid 20c turned to
cremation as the cost-effective solution to the 20c burial crisisa
crisis which was now financial, compared to the public health
crisis of the 19c (Jupp 1993). Urban cemeteries typically have
large areas where old graves are no longer visited; there is not
the revenue to maintain these graves properly, and vandals and
substance abusers find these unfrequented urban wildernesses a
haven for their nefarious activities. Visiting and tending more
recent graves remains buoyant, along with occasional visiting
of older graves (Francis et al 1997; Francis et al 2000), but
many mourners are elderly; safety and accessibility for them are
19th century USA was like the UK in that graves
were understood to be perpetual, but unlike the UK in that cemeteries
were funded adequately, with an amount from each grave sale invested
for the purpose of "perpetual care". In a commercialised
and geographically mobile society, it was understood that families
were (a) unlikely to be able to tend the graves indefinitely,
and (b) they would be willing to pay the cemetery company to do
this for them (Sloane 1991). Several Victorian cemeteries in the
USA look like the original prospectuses predicted they would look
when mature: delightful parks, with individual and uncrowded monuments
and fine trees set among lawns, with room to stroll and admire.
No British cemetery lives up its original promise in this way.
The UK therefore, has inherited a solution to
the 19c burial crisis thatuniquely in the western worldis
unsustainable. Burial grounds need to be:
British urban burial grounds are the worst in Europe
on all these counts.
The hospice and palliative care movements have
led major advances in care of dying people, euthanasia is regularly
discussed in the media, green and do-it-yourself funerals have
attracted considerable publicity, and there is now considerably
more understanding of the needs of bereaved people. In many ways,
death today is hardly a taboo subject (Walter 1994). Yet the one
issue that is rarely discussed in the press or in any way in public
is the erosion by default of British citizens' burial rights.
Why is this?
There are three main types of burial ground
in the UK: municipal cemeteries, private cemeteries, and churchyards.
I will focus mainly on municipal cemeteries, but much of what
I write applies to the other two as well.
Politicaly, there are three relevant parties:
1. The users, ie the general public.
3. Members of Parliament.
The users have generally remained ignorant about
current problems in cemetery provisionunlike in the mid
19c when it was a hot topical issue, and unlike the media coverage
and public concern today about railway management. Why this should
be is unclear.
One might think that users, having lost all
folk memory of the medieval re-use of graves and assuming that
bones should be left undisturbed, would be resistant to the reintroduction
of short-term renewable leases. A well- conducted and representative
survey, however, indicates that a significant minority would be
prepared to accept re-use (David & Shaw 1995). Francis et
al (1997, 2000) have recently contemplated a valuable study
in six London cemeteries researching users' visiting patterns,
behaviour and attitudes.
In some London boroughs, cemetery managers have
for some time understood that they are now failing, or will soon
fail to provide burial as an option for local residents. In villages
which have rapidly expanded to become dormitory villages and where
there is no adjacent land available to extend the churchyard,
the vicar faces the same problem. Some vicars have consulted with
the local residents, presenting the options (re-use of graves,
or burial in the nearby town), and the villagers have opted for
re-use. This has never happened with municipal cemetery management,
partly because the law is different and partly because of the
less personal relationships between local authorities and local
citizensthey are more likely to distrust what committees
are cooking up behind closed doors than they are a vicar who is
a known individual. Occasionally, the local press leaks a story
"Council to dig up grannies in new plan", or "Council
to take over sports field for cemetery extension" and that
is the end of all sensible discussion.
Cemetery managers, especially in some London
boroughs, are in a difficult position. Without positive support
from the local press, it is difficult for them to engage users
in a frank and open discussion about the options. It has also
to be said that there is also a significant degree of paternalism
coming from management. Municipal cemetery managers in Britain
are not known for advocating the continental system in which it
is entirely in the hands of the individual family whether and
how often to renew the grave lease. Instead, UK cemetery managers
tend to discuss rather longer leases (eg 50 to 75 years), after
which all graves are cleared. The proposals are typically management-driven
rather than user-driven, paying more attention to management needs
than to user wishes. That said, of the three groups it is only
cemetery management who realise the urgency of the problem and
are trying, with precious little support from elsewhere, to initiate
A number of overtures over recent years have
been made to get government to loosen the law to make re-use feasible.
These have been consistently blocked by governments of both left
and right, who fear that public discussion of the issue will be
a vote-loser. Of the three groups, it is national politiciansconcerned
with their own popularity rather than national interestwho
have been blocking reform. Until government is prepared to grasp
this nettle, the right of UK citizens to local buriala
basic right enjoyed throughout the rest of Europewill steadily
slip from their grasp. For this reason, I am delighted that a
House of Commons Select Committee is now looking at the issue;
I hope it will ensure the issue is finally addressed, and addressed
Curl, J S (1980) A Celebration of Death:
an introduction to some of the buildings, monuments, and settings
of funerary architecture in the Western European tradition, London:
Constable 1980, chs. 7,8.
Davies, D. & Shaw, A (1995) Reusing Old
Graves: a report on popular British attitudes, Crayford: Shaw
Francis, D. Kellaher, L & Lee, C (1997)
Talking to people in cemeteries, Journal of the Institute of
Burial and Cremation Administration, 65(1): 14-25.
Francis, D. et al (2000) "Sustaining
Cemeteries: the user perspective", Mortality 5(1):
Jupp, P. (1993) The Development of Cremation
in England 1820-1990: a sociological analysis, London School
of Economics, unpublished PhD thesis.
Richardson, R. (1989) Death, Dissection and
the Destitute, London, Penguin.
Sloane, D C. (1991) The Last Great Necessity:
cemeteries in American history, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Walter, T. (1994) The Revival of Death, London:
Tony Walter, BA, PhD is part-time Reader in
Sociology at the University of Reading, where he also is course
director of the MA in Death & Society. He has researched and
lectured in many countries on death, bereavement and funerals.
His many publications in this area include:
Funeralsand how to improve
them (Hodder Headline 1990).
Pilgrimage in Popular Culture
The Eclipse of Eternitya
sociology of the afterlife (Macmillan 1996).
The Mourning for Diana (Berg
On Bereavementthe culture
of grief (Open University Press 1999).