Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Corporation of London (CEM 50)


  The City of London Cemetery is one of the largest public cemeteries in Europe. Together with the crematorium it serves the needs of a large section of the population to the East of the Capital. The cemetery covers 200 acres and has a substantial infrastructure that includes over seven miles of roads, three gothic chapels and a crescent shaped Catacomb overlooking landscaped areas. The front entrance of the cemetery is Grade II listed. It is also the largest open space in the London Borough of Newham where it is included on the borough's list of sites of a significant local conservation value. Approximately 500,000 visitors attend the cemetery and crematorium each year.

  The City of London Cemetery was opened as a municipal facility in 1856. Since that time, the Corporation has taken a leading role in the development and provision of services including London's first municipal crematorium (1904), columbaria (1930 and 1996), memorial gardens (1948), lawn graves (1953), woodland burial (1998) and the use of pre-cast burial chamber systems (2000).

  To date the cemetery and crematorium have received 498,000 burials and 224,000 cremations and the service handles over 5,500 funerals each year. The service is operated on a self-financing and not-for-profit basis. Although the service was first established to meet the needs of the City of London, the cemetery and crematorium are the main burial and cremation facilities for East London. Fees and charges are set to reflect the cost of the service without any subsidy and at no cost to the local authorities served (including the London Boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham, Waltham Forest, Barking & Dagenham and Redbridge). The cemetery and crematorium fall under the remit of the Corporation of London's Port and City of London Health and Social Services Committee and are part of the Corporation's Environmental Services Department.


  Cemeteries are a major part of the urban landscape and invariably represent valuable open space of special interest from historical, architectural and cultural perspectives. Cemeteries have a significant role in urban areas where they are particularly important for local communities where open space is at a premium. There is a great deal of potential to develop the role of cemeteries as open spaces. To promote the use of the City of London cemetery as an open space the Corporation of London provides a tree trail brochure, organises educational tours of the grounds (covering ecology, geology and history) and receives school groups.

  Municipal cemeteries cover significant areas in most cities. In the capital, for example, they make-up 8 per cent of all the public open space within central London (increasing to 14 per cent for inner London) and 65 per cent of the land is in conservation areas (Halcrow Fox, 1997). Obviously, cemeteries have an important role in maintaining open, green and leafy urban areas. Most cemeteries, particularly those in the centre of villages, towns and cities, are well located and occupy land which could have considerable market value. Despite these factors, cemeteries are often left out of unitary development plans.


  A consistent theme of writings on cemeteries over the last 20 years suggests that they are increasingly recognised as a significant part of our historic and architectural heritage and that as such they have a great deal to offer society- they are not simply places for burying the dead.

  There have been numerous observations on the deterioration of municipal cemeteries. A consistent theme of these observations is the decline of cemetery heritage and maintenance standards. A great deal of concern has been expressed about the decline of the Victorian cemetery landscape in particular and the establishment of numerous "friends of cemeteries" groups seeking to conserve their historical, architectural and ecological value is an indication of the interest being taken by the media and public. Unfortunately, the landscapes of many existing cemeteries are being adversely affected by the use of areas that were not originally intended for burial use viz. paths, verges and roads. This is likely to continue until the shortage of burial space is properly addressed.

  In addition to resolving the burial space problem, there is a need to give consideration to the future preservation and use of old gravestones where the owners are no longer alive or able to take responsibility.

  A major concern for burial authorities is the condition of gravestones and the potential threat to life and limb that they pose to visitors and staff. The problem has been highlighted following several deaths in cemeteries over the last few years as a result of unstable monuments. The Corporation has embarked upon a major programme of inspection at a cost of £100,000 per annum to test the stability of monuments and, where necessary, to make them safe. However, most authorities lack the resources to carry out remedial work to ensure that memorials are made safe in a manner that is not detrimental to the heritage value of cemeteries.

  The resource problem is exacerbated by the following factors:

    1.  A general unwillingness amongst local authorities to set cemetery fees and charges to reflect actual costs;

    2.  The cost of maintaining old graves;

    3.  The failure by burial authorities to put aside income from the sale of exclusive rights of burial (often sold for up to 100 years ahead) and to spend the limited income on current expenditure (thereby making the problem worse for future generations of local tax payers);

    4.  Cemeteries run by local authorities generally lose out in the fight for limited resources because they have to compete against other services, such as social services, refuse collection, and parks and leisure services, that have a much higher public and, therefore, political profile.

  Local authorities with cemeteries and crematoria invariably subsidise burial and not cremation. Indeed, cremation income is often used to subsidise burial fees.


  A number of Government Departments and Agencies have initiatives which affect the operation of cemeteries and crematoria.

  The DETR is considering the making of regulations under section 150 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 giving local authorities the power to charge for the provision of memorials (although they have the power to provide memorials, they have no power to charge a fee). The Audit Commission has invited submissions as part of its proposals to review cemeteries and crematoria (the last occasional paper by the Commission was completed in 1989—"Managing Cemeteries and Crematoria in a Competitive Environment"), The Home Office is reviewing "Death Certification" (following the Shipman case). The Environment Agency is reviewing the guidance notes for the control of emissions from crematoria (with potentially major implications for the future operation and viability of crematoria). The Office of Fair Trading is investigating cemeteries and crematoria; and HM Treasury is drafting regulations to control the use of monies paid in advance for the provision of funeral related services.

  It can therefore be seen that there is a great deal going on and the apparent lack of co-ordination between these investigations and inquiries highlights the need to examine Government's role as the policing authority over cemetery and crematoria providers whether they are private or public. The absence of any independent arrangements for the inspection and monitoring of the provision and operation of cemeteries and crematoria should, it is suggested, be a cause of concern for the Government. There is a need clearly to determine and define who in Government is responsible for the management and protection of cemeteries and crematoria.

  Cemeteries are a Cinderella service that has previously received little attention from central government. Consideration should be given to the creation of a co-ordinating mechanism to act as a government focal point for issues relating to bereavement (including cemeteries, crematoria, burial and cremation legislation, death registration, coroner duties and funeral services generally).


  The Corporation was a co-sponsor of the report "Planning for Burial Space in London—Policies for sustainable cemeteries in the new millennium" prepared by the London Planning Advisory Committee and published in August 1997 and has endorsed the nine burial policies set out in that report.

  The City of London Cemetery has a limited amount of space and there is no opportunity to extend the existing boundary. Most other cemeteries in the United Kingdom are in the same position. The case for the reuse of old, abandoned graves has been made to the Home Office, subject to research into public attitudes towards the proposal. Calls for action date back to 1993 but the Home Office has yet to issue a consultation paper on the proposal.

  There is no legal duty on local authorities to provide new cemetery space, although they must maintain existing cemeteries in good condition. Consideration should be given to placing a duty upon local government to ensure that there is adequate burial provision for the area they serve. Such a requirement would help to focus thinking and action at the local level, which may help to avoid a blase attitude toward the shortage of burial space and its future provision.


  The Corporation has always appointed a professionally qualified officer to oversee the service and ensured that the officer reports direct to the appropriate committee on all policy matters. This has proved beneficial in achieving the high standards set at the City of London Cemetery. The appointment of professionally qualified officers would help to establish a minimum standard of competence in the provision and management of cemeteries across the UK. The Select Committee may wish to examine whether such an appointment should be mandatory.

  The management of local authority cemeteries is governed by the Local Authorities' Cemeteries Order 1977. It is suggested that should be reviewed to reflect changes over the last 23 years and service innovation such as the Charter for the Bereaved, which provides an excellent opportunity to re-examine the duties and responsibilities of burial and cremation authorities.

November 2000

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