Examination of witnesses (Questions 1
TUESDAY 9 JANUARY 2001
HUSSEIN and DR
1. Good morning. Can I welcome you to the first
session of the Committee's inquiry into cemeteries. Could I ask
you both to identify yourselves for the record?
(Dr Walter) Dr Tony Walter
(Dr Hussein) Dr Ian Hussein.
2. Thank you very much. Do either of you want
to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us
to go straight into questions?
(Dr Walter) I am happy for you to go straight into
3. Good morning. How would you sum up the condition
of cemeteries in Britain today in essence?
(Dr Hussein) I would say that the general standard
of maintenance in terms of the cutting of grass and the general
care of the greenery of cemeteries is quite good, but I would
say that the overall state and condition of the infrastructure
of cemeteries is very poor. When you look at the detail of cemeteries,
for example if we go into the infrastructure of drainage, pathways,
boundaries, actual buildings, I would have to describe that as
very poor. If you go a step further and look at the condition
of memorials, old gravestones, in cemeteries, I would say it is
(Dr Walter) I would agree with that. If you look at
British cemeteries on an international comparison, if you compare
us to the United States, where the selling of graves has always
included an element of what they call perpetual care, there is
the funding for the proper maintenance of cemeteries and in almost
all other European countries they have a reuse leasing system
that generates not only ongoing income but most graves have families
who are currently interested in maintaining them and Britain is
the odd one out.
4. Who do you think ought to be responsible
for maintaining cemeteries and for dealing with the problems that
you have just identified?
(Dr Hussein) I would say that local authorities should
retain responsibility for cemeteries but I think there needs to
be greater responsibility taken by Central Government in terms
of the strategic direction of the disposal of the dead in this
country. The whole area has lacked any direction in terms of policy
and I would say that is the fault of governments over the last
100 or so years.
5. Why do you think that is the case?
(Dr Hussein) From every aspect you look at in terms
of strategic planning, setting of policy, the Government has relinquished
responsibility and passed it on to local authorities. It is almost
as though the current state that we have has occurred by default,
political default. At the moment I see no co-ordination at all
by the Government in terms of the future arrangements for the
disposal of the dead. I describe the general condition as very
poor and I would say that is largely due to a lack of forward
thinking, particularly from Central Government.
6. Dr Walter, you said in your submission that
you thought that death was much less of a taboo subject in our
society now than it has been previously. Why do you think that
is the case? Have we gone sufficiently along the way to make the
discussion of death open?
(Dr Walter) Yes. Whether or not it was taboo there
is certainly a lot of discussion about it now. A study that I
and some colleagues did in the mid-1990s showed that in one particular
three month period, I think it was autumn 1994, when we sampled
the front pages of all the national newspapers, and this was not
a period when there was any great disaster or war or anything
like that, we found around half of all the pictures and the stories
on the front pages were about death in one way or another. Certainly
as far as the media is concerned death is not a taboo topic, it
is a very fashionable one. I think to some extent it is to do
with the changing way in which people die. Increasingly people
die of degenerative diseases rather than infectious diseases and,
because of advances in medicine, diseases like cancer and heart
disease can be diagnosed earlier and earlier and medical treatment
very often does not definitively cure them but can maintain life
at a very healthy level, very often for decades. So the idea that
we are a healthy society and you just go into hospital and die
a few days later, it is not like that, there are a lot of people
around wondering how to manage the process of dying. I think we
are just in a new ball game really, the process of dying has changed
and the old ways of doing it do not work any more. That is very
much on the agenda. When it comes to burials and funerals there
is a certain interest in do-it-yourself funerals, green burials,
things that are a little bit off the wall maybe that the media
likes to concentrate on. What there has not been so far is a serious
discussion either amongst policy makers or in the media about
the rights to a decent burial.
7. Are you implying that some people do not
get a decent burial then?
(Dr Walter) This is my personal view. It seems to
me that in our society people should have a choice between cremation
and burial. Burial should be somewhere that is reasonably local,
reasonably accessible, safe to visit, and the burial ground should
be sustainable. People choose burial typically for one of two
reasons in our country. One is for religious or cultural reasons,
they may be catholic or muslim. The other is because they want
to visit the grave. It may be a child who has died, there may
be all sorts of personal reasons why they want to visit the grave.
Very often the mourners who want to visit the grave on an ongoing
basis are elderly and women and to have a large consolidated out
of town cemetery on a motorway intersection is not really suitable.
To have to walk through a large area of an old cemetery where
there are disused graves, nobody is visiting the area, in order
to get to a husband's grave is also not satisfactory. It seems
to me the right to a decent burial and to a decent burial plot
means that it should be local, safe and accessible and that is
what we do not have in this country and almost every other country
in Europe does have that right.
8. You mentioned that there are a range of alternatives
available when it comes to the disposal of the dead. Do you think
that the recently bereaved have access to independent advice about
the range of choices available in those two or three days in effect
when people have to take a decision about how they are going to
arrange the funeral of someone they have lost given the role of
funeral directors and advice that may be provided by local authorities
running cemeteries, some of whom provide advice for the bereaved?
(Dr Walter) I do not think that they do have anything
like the range of choices explained to them at that time. That
is one of the reasons why I certainly welcome the advance planning
of funerals so that people can think about the issue beforehand.
It does not necessarily mean advance purchase but the advance
planning of it. When it actually comes to the moment, you are
absolutely right, you have got a very short period of time to
think about things which is why we need more information and a
culture which is more open about discussing these issues.
9. We have received evidence that in some cases
funeral directors are not very keen to point out to the recently
bereaved that, for instance, the green funeral option is available,
the use of cardboard coffins, and those kinds of things. You mentioned
the need for improved information, how are we going to ensure
that we, as the bereaved, find out what is available at the time
we need to?
(Dr Walter) If you are talking about information at
the moment of death, not in the months beforehand, clearly funeral
directors are the prime source of information. I would want to
say that if you are a funeral director and you have a distressed
family member then, yes, you cannot give them 153 options, there
is a limit to what you can give them. Otherwise I think there
are really only two main ways in which information can be readily
accessible at the point of death or in the day or so afterwards.
One is through the internet and there is significant potential
there because people can tap into that and there are one or two
companies that are now providing this information on the internet.
The other is something which we have been proposing in the National
Funerals College, of which I am a member, which is a funeral adviser
where in hospitals and old people's homes and places where people
die there is somebody who is trained to actually enable people
to see what the options are, so you have actually got an extra
source of independent information. It seems to me those are the
only two ways you could really in a big way increase the availability
10. Why do you think cemeteries are failing
in their principal task?
(Dr Walter) I think basically because the way in which
in Britain 150 years ago we attempted to solve the burial crisis
was, and is in the long run, unsustainable. You either need lots
of land and proper funding, as in the United States, or else you
need a well designed system of reuse of graves and short-term
leases as every other European country has created. We are now
reaping the inheritance of a badly designed system from the 1850s.
11. Do you think that in practical terms it
is the best use of the land to have burials at all?
(Dr Hussein) Yes. I think that cemeteries are sustainable
if we could have the reuse of graves and perhaps extend that to
the reuse of monuments in order that we can conserve the monuments
that we have. We now have great infrastructure in this country,
particularly in our towns and cities, extensive cemeteries. The
reason they are falling into a poor state, and continue to do
so, is because we are failing to use them in a sustainable way,
and that was exactly what Tony was pointing out. If we are able
to reuse the graves we would be able to solve the problems in
the long-term. Cemeteries are running out of space and we need
to plan well ahead. It is vital that we have the reuse of graves
introduced at the earliest opportunity because the industry is
going to need at least 20 years to get its act together to implement
the reuse of graves in an effective manner.
12. Could you just explain reuse so we can get
that very clearly. I think we are being televised this morning
and there will be people listening and watching who would like
to know what you are talking about when you talk about the reuse
(Dr Hussein) I think we need to start by defining
exactly what we can and cannot do at the moment. When we inter
somebody it is illegal to disturb the remains once they are interred.
In London, and it is important to mention London because London
has far greater powers than the rest of the country, 75 years
after the date of the last interment, London boroughs, as burial
authorities, have the right to reclaim the rights of burial in
a grave and to reuse the remaining depth in that grave without
disturbing the previous interments. So if, for example, a grave
was used 100 years ago and interment took place at ten feet and
there is a remaining depth, we can use that remaining depth. Across
the country local authorities already have the powers to clear
gravestones, and that has been done on quite a large scale, particularly
in the 1970s and 1980s. When we talk about the actual reuse that
we want to see introduced, we are talking about the right to disturb
remains after a set period. We are proposing that is 75 years
after the date of the last interment, whereby a grave would be
reopened and excavated to the maximum depth that could be achieved
and any remains that are found in that process are reinterred
in the same grave at the bottom, so we actually create more space.
It has been suggested that we do that providing there are no objections
from any living relatives.
13. For a historian, whose main source in many
cases would be cemeteries, that would be lost in circumstances
(Dr Hussein) Not necessarily. It is being lost at
the moment because those monuments I am talking about are literally
falling to pieces. We have cemeteries full of millions of gravestones
that are falling into deterioration. We know from surveys that
have been carried out that at least five per cent of those monuments
are in a very dangerous state, that has been proven at various
14. What do you think local authorities can
do to improve this service?
(Dr Hussein) It is a vicious circle in terms of what
they can and cannot do. At the moment I think there is a lack
of direction at the local government level in terms of the use
of cemeteries. They are not being run in a sustainable way, neither
from the use of the land nor financially. The fees and charges
that are applied at cemeteries are totally unrealistic but, on
the other hand, people find it difficult to afford burial because
it is becoming so expensive. The reason is we are selling graves
for such long periods, on average between 50 and 75 years. If
I was to say to you "you can buy a grave and you can pay
£10 a year and I will look after that grave for you for 75
years", I will get £750. There are few local authorities
in this country that are even charging that and it is totally
15. What do you think should be taken as a course
of action to improve the status of a burial?
(Dr Hussein) We are just touching on the tip of the
iceberg of the problems. We need central direction from Government.
This whole issue needs to be looked at very, very thoroughly.
Cemeteries and burial authorities should be required to have cemetery
management plans. We need to look at the provision of cemeteries
on a regional basis. At the moment they are within local government
but they are such a small area of local government activity that
they get no real attention from a political perspective at the
local level and certainly not at the central level.
16. One of the other inquiries that we have
been involved in was parks where we identified that there was
not the expertise and there was not the training of the staff.
Would that be the same with cemeteries? Do you think that something
should be done about it?
(Dr Hussein) I would say in the larger authorities
the officers are well trained because they can afford to have
a dedicated officer. At the lower level, in small local authorities,
town councils, parish councils, the level of expertise is almost
17. How do you improve that? What should be
(Dr Hussein) The problem is that at town and parish,
smaller levels, they do not justify the appointment of a full-time
officer simply because the operation is not big enough. That is
why I think you need to look at a much bigger scale in terms of
the provision, planning and running of cemetery services.
18. We heard some evidence from the advisers
before we started that there is a dearth of information concerning
cemeteries, the number of cemeteries, the number of churchyards.
On what basis have you just made those statements? What evidence
do you have to prove what you have just told the Committee?
(Dr Hussein) In terms of the level of expertise?
19. In terms of the staffing of cemeteries,
the quality of cemeteries, the standards applied in cemeteries?
(Dr Hussein) I have worked in the profession for 17
years and I have been involved in the Institute of Burial and
Cremation for most of that period. I have travelled throughout
the country looking at cemeteries and meeting people who actually
run them. I have also run a large number of training seminars
that are organised specifically to provide basic training for
those running cemeteries at the town and parish level. I have
always been astonished at the absolute lack of knowledge, even
about basic legal duties and responsibilities.