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Growing Problem of Lack of Burial Space

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How would you feel about your body, or that of a relative’s, being buried on top of another?

In some parts of England and Wales, land for burial is scarce, and many cemeteries are closed because they are full. While cremation has grown increasingly in popularity* over the last few decades, there are still segments of the population who prefer to be buried, including faith groups.

The option of reusing graves has been considered for some time as a way of addressing the problem. The provision of burial grounds is dealt with by local authorities, private companies or religious organisations. As you might guess, London suffers particularly from the scarcity of available burial ground space.

Some seven years ago, the relevant burial authorities and the London Planning Advisory Committee looked into the capacity for burials in the Greater London area. At the time, inner London boroughs were estimated to have, on average, seven years’ burial capacity left. Outer London boroughs were expected to have about 18 years of capacity – though results varied widely, with some areas having almost no capacity left at the time.

Research into burial ground space in England and Wales overall in 2007 showed that less than three-quarters of burial grounds had room for new burials, with about 20% of all designated burial land unused at the time. Graveyards with unused burial space predict that their land will be full in about 25 to 30 years.

Urban areas are the worst off, and the next ten to twenty years will see increasing pressure on space for burials. When it comes to the legalities, buried human remains may not be disturbed without specific authority. It an offence to remove buried human remains without a licence from the Secretary of State under Section 25 of the Burial Act 1857. If the ground is consecrated according to the rites of the Church of England, permission from the Church is required. In limited circumstances, London’s burial authorities already have the power to disturb graves older than seventy-five years to deepen them and allow further burials to take place.

In September 2014, however, the then Justice Minister, Simon Hughes, said that the use of the statutory powers by London burial authorities at that time was “almost non-existent”. Those in the burial industry see reuse as the only long-term solution. The ‘lift and deepen’ method can alleviate the shortage of space. Remains in an existing grave are dug up, reinterred (in a new coffin, if needs be), and the rest of the grave used for fresh burials. Old remains take up less space, and the grave is deepened, allowing another three burials.

*A YouGov poll last year revealed that of the 1,546 adults surveyed, 58 percent would prefer to be cremated compared to 17% of those who wanted to be buried, but sensitivities and religious feelings remain.