Cemeteries are running out of space to bury the dead, local authorities have warned, prompting calls for an overhaul of archaic legislation to prevent families from deepening funeral poverty.
The disposal of human remains is governed by a complex set of laws in England and Wales dating back to the Victorian era, which prevents the reuse of graves.
Cemetery experts are calling for this to be urgently reviewed as local authorities, including Tower Hamlets and Brent in London, and parts of Oxfordshire, have run out of spaces in which to bury people, while many others have little left after the pandemic’s higher death toll.
“There’s a huge, huge problem – it’s endemic, rooted in our system for over 100 years. We’re still using a Victorian system, which is causing all sorts of problems because it’s so antiquated. Unlike other countries in the world, we do not have a regulatory system for the reuse of graves, which means that once someone is buried, it is not possible to use that grave again. new,” said Julie Rugg, an academic at the University of York who sits on the Department of Justice’s Graveyards Group.
In late 2022, the Law Commission launched a review of the burial and cremation law, but Rugg remains skeptical of the speed of progress. “I’ve been in this field since 1991 and all shades of government look at this and say don’t deal with it and then move on. Over time, I concluded that they just didn’t want to,” she said.
Yet the issue is becoming more pressing not only because more and more local authorities are running out of space, but also because funeral costs are rapidly rising as a result.
“We cannot keep building new sites, there is no space available, and if a local authority runs a cemetery they have a duty to maintain it – so it costs money but it there’s no income because there’s no burials,” said Julie Dunk, executive director of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management.
Cemetery experts want to see an urgent government commitment that legislative change will make it easier to reuse graves by burying previous burials deeper, although relaxing planning restrictions for cemeteries is another solution.
Dunk noted that there were caveats to reusing graves: only after 75 years, with permission from surviving family members, and as part of a heritage management plan to protect important graves. .
Paul McLean, funeral director at Integrity Funeral Care in London, agreed that “the noise level on this issue is very low, almost silent”. He said: “If this isn’t addressed at government level imminently, I think – it’s a guess born from experience and talking to others within trade – within the next 10 years, if nothing is done, we will face a big problem.”
He said some people did not like the idea of re-using graves, but recommended that land be given to London boroughs and cremation be subsidized, although he noted that some communities, such as the Afro-Caribbean families he works with had a cultural preference for burial. Encouraging plot rentals for three or four people rather than two could also help, he added.
The problem was exacerbated by a “postcode lottery” between boroughs, where prices “vary wildly”, forcing people to decide where to bury their loved ones based on cost, he said. “We are seeing more and more families approach funerals with the pain and suffering of bereavement associated with how we physically find the finances for it.”
Some local authorities charge more for non-residents than others. For example, burying a resident in Lewisham costs £4,535 compared to £11,150 for non-residents – significantly more than neighboring Croydon, which charges £3,772 for residents and non-residents.
Families may not be able to afford to bury a loved one who has just moved from an area where they have spent most of their lives or close to home. For the inhabitants of the arrondissements lacking space, they may be required to accept plots an hour’s drive away.
“Cemeteries that have land available charge so much for land that I fear it will soon be beyond the reach of many people. It is potentially very distressing for families when they are most vulnerable,” McLean said.
A government spokesman said ministers ‘acknowledged this was a sensitive issue’ and had introduced bereavement support and a Law Commission project to modernize bereavement laws burial, which will receive a response from the government within a year of its publication.