Call to allow reuse of graves as burial plots run low in England and Wales

Local authorities say they are short of space due to Victorian laws that are also causing rise in funeral costs

Cemeteries are running out of space to bury the dead, local authorities have warned, prompting calls for an overhaul of archaic legislation to prevent deepening funeral poverty for families.

The disposal of human remains is governed by a complex set of legislation in England and Wales dating to the Victorian era, which prevents graves being reused.

Cemetery experts are calling for this to be urgently overhauled 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 massive, massive issue – it’s endemic, baked into our system for over 100 years. We’re still using a Victorian system, which is causing all sorts of problems because it’s so far out of date. Unlike other countries around the world we have no regulatory system for grave reuse which means once someone’s buried it’s not possible to use that grave again,” said Julie Rugg, an academic at the University of York who sits on the Ministry of Justice cemeteries group.

At the end of 2022, the Law Commission launched a review of burial and cremation law, but Rugg remains sceptical that progress will be swift. “I’ve been working in this area since 1991 and every shade of government looks at this issue and says not going to deal with that and then moves on. Over time I’ve concluded they just don’t want to,” she said.

Yet the issue is becoming more pressing not only because more local authorities are running out of space, but also because funeral costs are rapidly rising as a result.

“We can’t keep building new sites, there isn’t the space available, and if a local authority runs a cemetery it has a duty to maintain it – so it’s costing money but there’s no income because there are no burials,” said Julie Dunk, the chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management.

Cemetery experts want to see an urgent commitment from the government that legislative change will make it easier to reuse graves by interring earlier burials deeper, although relaxing planning restrictions for cemeteries is another solution.

Dunk noted there were caveats to grave reuse: only after 75 years, with the permission of surviving family members, and as part of a heritage management plan to protect important graves.

Paul McLean, a funeral director at Integrity Funeral Care in London, agreed that “the noise level on this problem is very low, almost silent”. He said: “If it is not addressed at government level imminently, I think – this is a guess born out of experience and talking to others within the trade – within the next 10 years if nothing is done we will hit a big problem.”

He said some people did not like the idea of grave reuse, but recommended that land be given to boroughs in London and cremation subsidised, though he noted that some communities, such as the African-Caribbean families he works with, had a cultural preference for burial. Encouraging the leasing of plots for three or four people rather than two could also help, he added.

The problem was being exacerbated by a “postcode lottery” between boroughs, where prices “vary tremendously”, forcing people to decide where to bury relatives based on costs, he said. “We’re seeing more and more families approach funerals with the pain and suffering of bereavement coupled with how do we physically find the finances for this.”

Some local authorities charge more for non-residents than others. For example, to bury a resident in Lewisham costs £4,535 compared with £11,150 for non-residents – much higher than neighbouring Croydon, which charges £3,772 for residents and non-residents.

Families may be unable to afford to bury a loved one who only recently moved from an area they spent most of their lives in, or near where they live. For people in boroughs that have run out of space, they may have to accept plots an hour’s drive away.

“The cemeteries that do have land available are charging so much for plots that I’m worried they will soon be well beyond the reach of a lot of people. It’s potentially very distressing for families when they’re at their most vulnerable,” McLean said.

A government spokesperson said ministers “recognise this is a sensitive issue” and had introduced financial support for bereavement and a Law Commission project aimed at modernising the laws around burial, which will receive a government response within a year of its publication.


Rachel Hall

The GuardianTramp

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