Can’t You Bury Them Standing Up?

Oct 16, 2013

Cotswold Funeral Director Welcome to the crisis helpline. Please choose from the following options: press 1 for  the economy; 2 for climate change; 3 for youth unemployment; 4 for immigration and the EU, or hold to speak to a funeral director about the shortage of burial space.

According to a recent survey (oh, doesn’t that phrase just drip with menace in our  modern age) almost half of England's cemeteries could run out of space within the next 20 years. We’ve already run out in my town. That’s the thing about us – very forward thinking; always one step ahead of the crowd.

Actually, I’m surprised the situation isn’t worse than that. But the root causes don’t surprise me at all. For one thing, it’s not so much lack of space as much as cultural expectation that burial is for perpetuity.

Secondly there’s cost. Burial is heavily subsidised and prohibitively uneconomic for the provider – whether local authority, parish council or church. In my area for example, we averaged 6 burials a year in the town’s only burial ground – the parish churchyard, back when it was still open to new burials. That didn’t even cover the cost of grass-cutting, let alone the purchase of new land to extend into. But then, 6 burials a year from a town population of 6000 is hardly a stampede away from cremation is it?

So what’s the answer to the space shortage? Bury people standing up? No, re-using graves is the solution. It involves lifting out remains from graves more than 75 years old (which is regarded as an appropriate passage of time), burying them deeper in the same grave and then re-using the space above. Simples – to quote the famous meerkat. It’s not permitted in law yet, apart from in London cemeteries; but the City of London Cemetery at Manor Park, run by the City of London Corporation, is currently the only one offering re-cycled graves.

After that many years there’s usually only bits of coffin and bones, so “lift and deepen” is really only about re-burying fragmentary, skeletal remains. It’s not exactly on a par with full-blown exhumation. On the down side however, folks who actually enjoy spending their weekends poking round historic burial grounds might be a little aggrieved at all this posthumous redevelopment!

There will always be options for families to retain their interest in a relative’s grave too, so there are safeguards. Re-use won’t ever be mandatory, it’ll just be the creation of another option.

But whilst re-use of graves is cost-effective, it still doesn’t necessarily mean the economics will stack up. Just because a huge old Victorian cemetery or parish churchyard is declared re-open for burials doesn’t guarantee there will be the same demand as there was when they were first opened in Victorian times. For instance, In 1901 cremation accounted for 0.07% of funerals. In 2012 it was 76%. As a result the UK has become culturally more inclined towards cremation, so even if more people had the option for burial it doesn’t necessarily mean they’d choose it. And if they did, they’re perhaps more likely to choose a green burial in one of over 200 sites around Britain now, following the proliferation of natural burials. So re-use of graves isn’t necessarily a magic wand for cash-strapped local authorities or parish councils. Even if they managed to re-open an entire cemetery they’d never make a financial surplus from operating it.

That’s where natural burial sites have an advantage. Ok, not many site proprietors will be driving Rolls Royces or retiring to the Caribbean anytime soon either, but one burden they don’t have is the ongoing cost of grounds maintenance. They want the grass to grow long and for everything to look wild and untamed - that’s the idea of natural burial; and where they do need to cut grass, having some sheep or goats in for grazing is far more eco-friendly than a petrol-driven lawnmower.

So, to handle your demise more efficiently, please choose from the following options: for cremation press 1; for natural burial press 2; for higher Council Taxes to pay for building new cemeteries press 3; or hold if you’re willing to adjust your thinking about going second-hand.

James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.

He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director


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