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

By Lee-Potter, Charlie | New Statesman (1996), March 29, 2004 | Go to article overview

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


Lee-Potter, Charlie, New Statesman (1996)


"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."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. Seven years on, and very few councils can offer burial space anywhere near residents' homes. Southwark is an exception, but grieving relatives in Kensington and Chelsea face a six-mile journey to Gunnersbury in west London to pay their respects.

It's a conundrum that is repeated up and down the country--unless you have plenty of money to spare. "A space in Highgate Cemetery will cost you [pounds sterling]4,000 now," says Rugg. "Increasingly, other local authorities will do the same thing with their fees." A funeral costs between [pounds sterling]2,000 and [pounds sterling]3,000 on top, so dying is a very expensive business. Churches are also capitalising on the demand for the space that remains. A churchwarden in a rural parish told me that her parochial church council is in the process of drawing up a charge sheet for burials. "The older people round here are starting to worry that there won't be any room left for them, so what else can we do? If you're a weekender or an outsider, things are going to be very difficult. But if you've got money, you can always buy your way in. It will be a means-tested benefit with an incremental list of fees depending on your local connections."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Urban vicars must look with some envy at rural churchyards, where space still exists for this means-tested body-juggling. But there is another method open to the canny local parish. It seems that several churches simply ignore the law banning the recycling of graves. One churchwarden told me that the local vicar had plans to move the oldest headstones and to reuse the space-a device that Dawson in Oxford has heard about, too. "I know of one parish where they've had a load of soil delivered to the churchyard. They built a retaining wall, filled it up with earth, and have made themselves a new graveyard on top of the old graves. If you've got several members of the same family buried on top of each other, the rule is that you must have six inches of soil between each coffin and three feet of soil on top of the last one. Realistically, you can't dig down deeper than 12 feet. So with a ton of extra soil, you can squeeze a couple of extra coffins on top."

Managers of the 90 official woodland burial sites in Britain believe they have the answer. The setting is beautiful, the only headstone is the tree itself and the coffins are made of cardboard that is swift to decay. But Rugg is dubious. "Woodland burials are no solution. Land is being used up even more greedily because, unlike family plots where four people can be buried one above the other, one tree equals only one body." Her other concern is that such sites are not regulated. "I had an e-mail the other day from a woman describing herself as a housewife with time on her hands, asking if she could create a woodland burial site round the back of her house."

The most intriguing contribution to the debate comes from the artists Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara, who have devised the first "DNA burial". "We've developed a method that allows us to combine human DNA with the DNA of a tree, without changing the genes of the tree." Tremmel says he has already been approached by several elderly women eager to become trees in the afterlife. Unlike conventional woodland burials, the tree doesn't need to have a body buried beneath it; the tree is the body. "The core of the project is that there will be life after death. I combine your granny's DNA with a single apple-tree cell. The tree grows and every single cell will have human DNA. When the tree produces apples, you must ask yourself what you will do with your granny fruit." I ask Tremmel what he would do. "Oh, I would have no problem eating the apples. No trouble. It's a poetic notion."

Human apples don't strike Dawson as poetic at all. For the first time in our long conversation about coffins, bones and burials, his lip curls in disgust. "Urrgh. That's horrible, isn't it?" he says with a look of real disdain. "Mind you, it would go down a storm in Oxford. Some of those professors are as daft as a brush."

Wolvercote Cemetery's most famous resident invented a fictional human tree decades ago, but I doubt he would have approved of Tremmel's version. I followed the signs to the grave of J R R Tolkien, along a path worn bare by the hundreds who visit each year. His grave was adorned with five ethnic bracelets, a stuffed woolly eagle, a white fluffy lamb and a bunch of pink carnations-all left by adoring fans. Dawson says he can spot the Tolkien fans a mile off. "They're decked out in long cloaks. Some of them stand in front of the grave and wave their arms around like branches." Proof, if it were needed, that graves are not simply places to dispose of our bodies. They are places of pilgrimage, and any new laws on burial must take that into account.

Dawson's deputy is often asked to say hello to the dead in the cemetery when relatives are away. "One lady always asks me to wish her dead husband a Happy Christmas and to water him when she's on holiday." I was half tempted to book my slot in the cemetery straight away. The thought of Dawson and Simmonds wishing me a jaunty good morning sounded so reassuring. I just hope there's still room for me when the time comes.

Additional research by Robert Colvile

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.