Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)

TUESDAY 9 JANUARY 2001

DR IAN HUSSEIN and DR TONY WALTER

  20. Surely you do not want the Committee to believe that virtually every cemetery in the country is so run down and mismanaged that everything needs to be corrected. That is certainly not my experience of local government. My experience in the area in which I live leads me to believe there is a tremendous amount of expertise and that cemeteries are well maintained and that parish councils take great pride. I would not like the evidence today, Chairman, to suggest that there are not many well run and well maintained cemeteries. Can I move on because you also mentioned funeral advisers.
  (Dr Walter) I did.

  21. Before I put my questions would you perhaps elaborate upon that? Who would employ them? Would this be another charge on already expensive funerals? Can you tell me where the present system is failing?
  (Dr Walter) The concept of a funeral adviser, which in a way I think is quite peripheral to the issue of cemeteries—

  22. Well, you mentioned it.
  (Dr Walter) I mentioned it, that is right. It was in response to the question about information. The concept, which is being piloted in a small number of old people's homes and hospices at the moment, is that a member of staff should be trained and be available to discuss, either with the patients before they die or with the family after they have died, what the options are. There is sometimes a rather cosy relationship between a particular funeral director and a particular old person's home or even hospice and we would like to unpick that so that independent advice can actually be given to people.

  23. Have you any examples of where the present system is falling down?
  (Dr Walter) Yes. Just to give my own personal experience of a very close friend who died in a hospice where she received extremely good terminal care. This was not in the area where I live and I asked "can you recommend a funeral director?" and they said "yes, we believe X is very good, we often use them" and they were absolutely dreadful. It was over Christmas, they were a large organisation and they just were not open most of the time. Certainly we would have got much better service from another company. When you look at what actually happens, you do get a close relationship very often between a particular funeral director and a particular institution like that. What those institutions could very easily do is every year—it would take no more than a day or half a day of one member of staff's time—ring around the different funeral directors, also the different cemeteries and crematoria, find out what their charges are and publish them. That would completely change the relationship so that people would know.

  24. It would certainly make for very interesting reading in the small libraries they have in old people's homes.
  (Dr Walter) It would indeed.

  25. You mentioned in your evidence, Dr Walter, that the need for cemeteries to be local is extremely important.
  (Dr Walter) Yes.

  26. You did touch on this earlier. What harm would accrue from consolidating cemetery services and relocating sites further out of town?
  (Dr Walter) Again, we perhaps do not have the evidence base for this although I would imagine that the research by Dr Doris Francis, which is going to be published in detail soon, would have some evidence on this and perhaps Cemetery Management would know something about this as well. A significant proportion of mourners who visit graves, and they will often visit graves for five, ten, 15 years after the death, are elderly and they are female. In London maybe where you have got free bus passes for the elderly it might be a nice day out to take three buses to get to a cemetery that is a considerable distance away, but in many towns that is not a realistic option for elderly relatives.

  27. Dr Hussein, evidence presented to the Committee indicates that lack of funding is a significant barrier to the restoration and maintenance of cemeteries. What would you consider to be the best ways forward to ensure the long-term financial viability of cemeteries?
  (Dr Hussein) The only way to ensure the long-term financial viability is to have the reuse of graves so that they are sustainable. In the short-term I think that local authorities are their own worst enemies in terms of finances for cemeteries because they fail to charge realistic fees. Most burial fees are heavily subsidised. I think there is a great deal of inconsistency in the way in which burial and cremation fees are applied. In many authorities cremation fees are used to subsidise the cemetery even further, so someone who is choosing cremation is not only paying a higher fee but they are also subsidising the cemetery.

  28. That might be the case where you have a crematorium and a cemetery in the same location but in a rural area you often have to travel for perhaps 15 or 20 miles before you come across a crematorium. You cannot relate what you have just said to all parts of the country.
  (Dr Hussein) No.

  29. Likewise, as far as the subsidy is concerned, I would imagine that people who are being buried in cemeteries have been loyal ratepayers and council taxpayers for most of their lives and in many cases councils have made quite a conscious decision that they will subsidise because of the very expensive cost of funerals these days.
  (Dr Hussein) Yes. That is obviously a policy decision to be made by elected members at the local level. My concern and my experience is that generally speaking there is a lack of specific policy making in respect of cemetery fees and charges. It is often just a reluctance to address the issues to put up the fees for cemeteries.

  30. Why is that important if it does not cause a particular community concern?
  (Dr Hussein) Precisely because they lack the resources to look after the cemetery in a decent manner. I agree with you, when I started I said that the general upkeep of the grounds, the cutting of the grass, is generally good, but I am talking about the infrastructure, the care of the boundaries, the paths,the buildings and the long-term upkeep of the monuments, it is quite appalling in our cemeteries and it is because of a lack of resources. You cannot have your cake and eat it. This is what local authorities, particularly at parish level, are doing, they are not charging realistic fees. I agree with you, if they were prepared to meet the costs of running the cemetery as it should be run from the rates then fair enough, but they are not.

  31. The cemeteries to which you are referring, are you thinking in terms of high cost cemeteries like Highgate, Kensal Green, large municipal cemeteries, because I do not have that experience in small communities? Perhaps where I live they are more enlightened than anywhere else.
  (Dr Hussein) The cemeteries that you have referred to are not typical of your British cemetery or burial ground in this country, they are not typical at all. What I am talking about applies to every cemetery in this country, whether it is a small parish burial ground or a large municipal cemetery. You have got to have realistic charging levels or a deliberate decision to subsidise the service ensuring that adequate resources are provided, and that is not happening.

Mr Blunt

  32. If you obtain the reuse after 75 years without an objection from living relatives, which is what you appear to be asking for, you are saying that would put the maintenance of municipal cemeteries on to effectively an ongoing basis?
  (Dr Hussein) Yes.

  33. In terms of the income they would be able to continue to generate by being able to continue to recycle the space?
  (Dr Hussein) If they charge realistic fees, yes.

  34. That surely is a matter for them, is it not, their fee level charging?
  (Dr Hussein) Yes.

  35. If the people in that local area are sufficiently exercised over the state of their cemeteries and think that the policy of the ruling authority is wrong, it is up to them to make changes in an election to people who want to maintain them in a different way with a different level of either public subsidy or charges?
  (Dr Hussein) Absolutely, yes, given the option.
  (Dr Walter) I would want to emphasise that, but at the moment they do not have that option because the law as it is currently interpreted does not allow the reuse of graves. I completely agree with Dr Hussein that that is the only way forward to produce an adequate revenue for cemeteries.

  36. If you obtain reuse then further regulation would not be required because it is then within the scope available to the local authorities to be able to manage their cemeteries in a way they and the local people who have elected them so choose?
  (Dr Walter) I would certainly say that the most important issue at the moment for national Government is either to change the law or allow the reinterpretation of the present law because that is what is completely gumming up the options at the moment. Could I also say that although the 75 years with a lift and deepen proposal that Dr Hussein has proposed is one that is current in this country I think we should also consider the continental type of option where typically leases are for a much shorter period of time. In a suburb of Antwerp in Belgium it was as little as eight years, I have seen it as 25, 30, 40 years in other towns. It depends upon what the local community determines as culturally acceptable and depends upon local soil conditions. In that kind of situation the family have complete option to renew the lease as often as they want, so how long the grave is there for is entirely up to the individual family. It is not a management decision which says "after 75 years you will have to have your loved one dug up unless you object", it is very much driven by the desires of the family rather than the management concerns of the cemetery. I think that is another option that should be looked at. In that kind of system there is no grave which does not have a family with an interest and there is no grave without an ongoing income stream coming in.
  (Dr Hussein) May I just add to that. Three years ago at the City of London Cemetery we introduced the option giving new grave owners the right to buy a grave either for 50 years, 75 years or 100 years, with the option that every five years they could add on another five year period so they could keep it at 50 years, 75 years or 100 years. Our experience so far has been that 95 per cent have opted for the 50 year option.

Chairman

  37. Is that because they cannot afford to pay for the longer ones?
  (Dr Hussein) I think that may be a factor, they are choosing the cheaper option, but generally in speaking to the public they are saying "50 years ahead I will not be here myself and if we want to extend the ownership we can do that, we can do that in five years' time, so we do not need to buy 75 years". We need to work towards that. We know from research into public attitudes that to try to bring down the periods will not be acceptable.

Mr Blunt

  38. What would be the cost of a typical plot for 50 years and then for 100 years?
  (Dr Hussein) Generally speaking, in the country?

  Mr Blunt: A ball park figure?

Mrs Dunwoody

  39. What does the City of London charge?
  (Dr Hussein) If you were to buy a grave for 50 years, it is £550 for the right of burial.


 
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