Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

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 the meantime.

  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 flesh—hence 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 one—but 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 crisis—a 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 under threat.

  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 that—uniquely in the western world—is unsustainable. Burial grounds need to be:

    —  local;

    —  sustainable;

    —  accessible;

    —  safe.

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.

    2.  Cemetery managers.

    3.  Members of Parliament.

1.  Users

  The users have generally remained ignorant about current problems in cemetery provision—unlike 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.

2.   Managers

  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 citizens—they 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 reform.

3.   MPs

  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 politicians—concerned with their own popularity rather than national interest—who have been blocking reform. Until government is prepared to grasp this nettle, the right of UK citizens to local burial—a basic right enjoyed throughout the rest of Europe—will 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 well.


  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 & Sons.

  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): 34-52.

  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 Press.

  Walter, T. (1994) The Revival of Death, London: Routledge.

  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:

    —  Funerals—and how to improve them (Hodder Headline 1990).

    —  Pilgrimage in Popular Culture (Macmillan 1993).

    —  The Eclipse of Eternity—a sociology of the afterlife (Macmillan 1996).

    —  The Mourning for Diana (Berg 1999).

    —  On Bereavement—the culture of grief (Open University Press 1999).

December 2000

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