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Grave Concerns
Local Government Chronicle – 1 February 2007

As available land comes under pressure, is recycling cemetery space the only option? Mark Smulian looks at the alternatives

B y the time a person is interred in a cemetery they have paid their last council tax bill, made their last complaint about development on open spaces and called upon public services for the last time.

Or have they? Those who choose to be buried collectively take up substantial amounts of land for cemeteries, which councils must buy and then pay to secure and maintain.

But what happens when the cemeteries fill up? In urban areas with high land values it is difficult to acquire sites for new ones, yet space must be found. Somehow.

Relations of people who have recently died usually wish to have them buried near to where they lived and would be unwilling to accept a remote site that might be more economical for a council.

Moreover, councils would be accused of bad taste were they to mount advertising campaigns in favour of cremation. Burial on the deceased's own land, while technically legal, requires Environment Agency consent so watercourses are not contaminated.

There are essentially four solutions to the issue: affordable land, reused graves, 'natural' burials and what might be termed new technology.

Croydon LBC faces the typical problem of an urban council with a finite supply of cemetery space in an area where land is costly.

"We have no more space in our northern cemeteries and though there is some in the south of the borough, there is only four years' supply. I'm looking for new sites, but land prices mean that available ones tend to get bought for other purposes and people object to cemeteries on the green belt or agricultural land," says bereavement services manager Kevin Pilkington.

"We do not use sites that are remote from the borough because people do not want that; they like to have their relations buried near to where they lived."

These constraints have driven Croydon to reuse graves. This can be done where a body was buried 75 or more years ago and the grave contains space for more than one corpse.

"Some people object to the idea, but in general it is accepted once it is explained that the original remains are not disturbed," Mr Pilkington says.

"If you think about it, having a body beneath yours is not so different from having another body near to you to the left or right.

"It is quite a green solution and has allowed us to reopen our Queens Road cemetery."

Things get problematic where graves do not have spare capacity. The Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) has spent two years mulling over proposals to allow a process coyly named 'lift and deepen', where excavation allows older remains to be buried lower to create a new grave above them.

York University cemetery research group director Julie Rugg says most councils that gave evidence to a parliamentary inquiry on the issue in 2001 had problems with cemetery space, or expected to have.

"Reuse of graves is the single solution that everyone looks towards, but it is illegal to disturb any human remains without a Home Office licence and that is a very long process that people have been reluctant to pursue," she says. "Everywhere else in Europe employs reuse and to be honest they think our attitude towards it is a bit batty."

Cardiff CC has land available to expand its main cemetery, but the cost of doing this has posed problems. Operations manager of its bereavement service Martin Birch explains the 2.4 hectares of land adjacent to the Thornhill cemetery would provide space for 12 to 15 years.

But the Environment Agency has insisted that the council first install deep drainage to take away stored groundwater from below the site, to remove any danger that corpses could contaminate the watercourse.

"Most cemeteries are high risk like this and need drainage put in because if it was decent land it would not be used for a cemetery, it would have houses on it or something," says Mr Birch.

"The cost is 650,000, but half of that is the drainage works and I'm looking to do it through prudential borrowing. I had to warn the council that if nothing were done Thornhill would close to new burials during 2007."

Mr Birch thinks councils should use money from planning gain - contributions paid by developers towards infrastructure - to support cemeteries.

"Any new housing development will increase the population and so eventually the demand for burials," he points out.

Milton Keynes Council has done this as part of the flat rate planning gain charge paid by developers of greenfield sites in the town's growth areas, but it remains an unusual approach.

It is not only urban areas, though, that face shortages of cemetery space. Denbighshire CC inherited a number of small cemeteries when it was formed in 1996 and although it does not have an absolute shortage of space, some are already full. Demand for people to be buried in their locality cannot be met.

Head of environmental services Steve Parker says: "There is a choice of whether to provide more space in each town or take a more county-wide view.

"Things can be rather parochial. We have 20 years' supply of space but it is not necessarily where people want to be buried and some people won't even be buried in a town three miles from where they lived, even though when you're dead you don't know where you are."

A new cemetery would cost Denbighshire about 1m, which "you cannot really justify against other council priorities when money is tight", says Mr Parker, so the council has had to tell residents that they cannot necessarily be buried where they wish.

There are religious and cultural issues to consider too, with some faiths, notably Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox, preferring burial.

Burnley BC has a growing Muslim population and green spaces contract manager Cameron Collinge has opened a special Muslim section in the main cemetery with capacity for 93 graves. The community's relative youth means only around five burials are currently carried out each year.

"We have enough burial space for everyone for approximately the next five years and are monitoring the situation closely," says Mr Collinge.

Croydon LBC also has a plot for Muslim graves, but Mr Pilkington has "noticed no particular increase in use; many first generation immigrants prefer their bodies should be repatriated to their country of origin."

Natural, or woodland, burials - where bodies are buried without headstones in biodegradable coffins and have trees planted above them - have also increased in popularity, though they do relatively little to save scarce land.

The Natural Death Centre advises councils that wish to create such plots. Director Mike Jarvis argues these are "better for the environment and use space better". A conventional burial will leach formaldehyde into the ground, whereas a woodland burial allows natural decomposition.

As for space, "one can get a greater number of bodies per hectare because you do not have all the infrastructure of a cemetery. The City of London Cemetery at Wanstead, for example, has 18 miles of roads in it," Mr Jarvis says. He says many councils put natural burial sites on land adjacent to cemeteries that is unsuited to conventional graves.

A more radical approach is promession, a technique developed in Sweden. The coffin and body are frozen at -196c so they become brittle and are then vibrated to create an organic powder. Liquid is evaporated off and any surgical parts and dental amalgam removed by a metal separator, leaving a powder that creates a compost.

The technique has been investigated by Crewe & Nantwich BC, although it has ample cemetery space, after cemeteries manager Mary Slinn read about the idea.

She says: "It requires a change in the law, which is silent on promession.

"We want to see the results of a trial being held in Sweden this year, but there has been a lot of positive interest from the public because it is seen as environmentally friendly; a method that gives something back to the soil and continues the cycle of life."

Meanwhile cemetery managers must continue to wait for the DCA to say what legal changes it will promote.

The pressure on space means those willing to share a grave, undergo natural burial, be cremated, or, perhaps eventually, frozen, will be performing a final public service.

There could even be some discreet promotion. Writing about woodland burial in a council newsletter, Croydon's cabinet member for public protection Steve O'Connell (Con) notes: "Maybe it's fitting given the current climate of environmental awareness that a green send-off is the best way to say goodbye."