No Room for the Dead: Thanks to the Victorians' Ban on Reusing Graves, Both Urban and Rural Cemeteries Are Crammed and Burial Is Becoming a Rich Man's Pastime. Charlie Lee-Potter Digs around for an Alternative

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"I'll just move Keith so you can sit down," says Hugh Dawson, Oxford's dry and avuncular cemetery manager, Keith, just cremated, is sitting in a small wooden box on one of Dawson's office chairs. "Mention funerals to some people and it scares them to death," Dawson observes wryly, putting Keith on his desk. "Someone asked me recently about pre-paid funerals. When I told him he could book a space in the cemetery for [pounds sterling]600, he looked horrified and told me it would be tempting fate."

Dawson and his deputy, Janet Simmonds, work from an office in his house in the grounds of Wolvercote Cemetery, north Oxford. Between them, they've clocked up more than 40 years in the cemetery. They love their jobs, but are relieved to be retiring before the city's cemeteries run out of space. "It won't be our problem by then. Two of our four cemeteries are full already, and this one's got about ten years left in it."

This uniquely British crisis has been building steadily since the population explosion of the 1850s. In the 19th century, towns and cities grew by as much as 150 per cent every 20 years. Gravediggers re-excavating land in our churchyards in the way they always had done were starting to uncover not old bones but rotting flesh. The population was growing too fast for the circular process of life, death and decay. The hasty Victorian remedy was to ban the reuse of graves completely. Consequently, most of our churchyards are now full and many urban cemeteries are either full or filling up fast.

Other European countries experienced similar population growth but had a more efficient solution. A family would be given a lease on a grave for anything between eight and 50 years. When the lease was up, it could be renewed or the land would pass to another family. The result is that even densely populated communities on the Continent still retain local cemeteries.

Dr Tony Walter, course director of the MA in death and society at Reading University, has consistently warned that "until government is prepared to grasp this nettle, the right of UK citizens to local burial--a right enjoyed throughout the rest of Europe--will steadily slip from their grasp". The Home Office has just published a consultation document on British burial and invited interested parties to submit their views by the summer. The fundamental question is whether we should start to recycle our graves in the way that the rest of Europe has historically done.

"If we don't do something, burial will become a rich man's pastime," says Dr Julie Rugg of the University of York's Cemetery Research Group. "Just when we're being encouraged to go for cremation because it takes up less space, we increasingly want something more formal to happen to our remains. But in five years' time, we will either be told that we can't be buried any more or our relatives will face the prospect of a hundred-mile round trip to visit our graves."


Cremation has been presented as the neat, environmentally friendly solution to the problem. But crematoriums, operating at temperatures of between 900[degrees]C and 1,200[degrees]C, may be responsible for as much as 90 per cent of airborne mercury emissions and 12 per cent of atmospheric dioxins. Few crematoriums allow more than 20 or 30 minutes for a service because there has to be a steady flow of bodies to support the huge heating costs.

The question that taxes us most when someone we love dies is whether we are doing what they would have wanted. If your dead relative lived in a place such as Tower Hamlets in east London, there'll be no choice anyway. The local authority has run out of space, and there is no official requirement for councils to offer burial services. Islington's cemetery in East Finchley has closed twice and is now filling in the gaps between existing graves. A survey by the London Planning Advisory Committee in 1997 found that the inner London boroughs had seven years' space left on average. …