The City of London Cemetery and Crematorium is located in east London. Photo: Sun Wei/GT
London is facing a looming burial crisis. Local authorities can't afford to buy new land while maintaining old cemeteries.
The City of London Cemetery and Crematorium is reusing graves which have not been used for more than 75 years to address this pressing issue. In fact, the very reason for the expansion of the Victorian cemetery was to solve the scarcity in London in the 19th century.
The City of London Cemetery and Crematorium's practice is new in the UK. The cemetery, opened in 1856, holds the remains of former England football captain Bobby Moore and the recently deceased union leader Bob Crow.
Gary Burks, the cemetery's superintendent, told the Global Times that the idea behind reusing graves is to bury remains more than 75 years old and place a new body in the existing grave.
"In the City of London and in Greater London, legislation is available to local authority cemeteries that permits a grave that has been used, but has not received a burial for over 75 years, to be reclaimed by the local authority," said Burks, adding that further legislation is needed so that when a grave is reused for further burials, any human remains that are found can be re-buried at the bottom of the grave before a new burial takes place. This way, old cemeteries become sustainable as a local burial place.
The grave scarcity
A survey conducted by the BBC in 2013 shows that almost half of England's cemeteries will run out of space within the next 20 years.
Cremation is more popular than natural burial in the UK, with 75 percent of families choosing cremation. But people like a choice and many cultures still choose to bury despite the higher cost.
The overcrowding in cemeteries drives residents to go to neighboring boroughs or councils to buy plots. This causes further problems for relatives, as they need to travel away from their hometown to pay their respects to their loved ones. Also, relatives who wish to be buried in the same cemetery face a dilemma.
Graveyard overcrowding is at its worst in the London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets, neither of which has space at all. And it's a nationwide crisis and there is no prospect of easing pressure due to the aging population.
"Unless there's a change in legislation there will be a crisis as local authorities and parish councils run out of space," Burks said, adding that the current legislation for burial in England and Wales is unsustainable. Land suitable for cemeteries is expensive as it is usually also suitable for building houses.
It's not the first time that Britain faces a burial crisis. Ever since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, hordes of people migrated from small villages and towns to large cities. Prior to industrialization, the dead would be buried in the local churchyard. With the growth of the urban population, Victorian Britain began to build large cemeteries in the suburbs to accommodate them.
The City of London Cemetery and Crematorium stretches across 200 acres, and was built to cope with the previous crisis.
However, these large cemeteries are either full or almost full.
The City of London Cemetery started reusing graves around six years ago, and has reused more than 1,000 graves.
It is the only place in the UK reusing graves on scale. People choose the "second-hand" grave partly because it's much cheaper. Other reasons for choosing the old cemetery include location or the type of the cemetery.
"The issue of grave space is more acute in London but very few local authorities are currently using available legislation," Burk explained.
Obviously the "lift and deepen" issue is a sensitive subject. The UK continues to resist any disturbance to graves since the Burial Act of 1857. But a 2007 law permits the reuse in London cemeteries, yet it does not apply to the rest of England.
The introduction of cremation in the late 1800s also helped ease the pressure of burial spaces for a while. However, it is now believed that cremation is not the clean and environmentally friendly option that it was once thought to be, and there have been several other methods of disposing the dead in recent years such as promessa and cryomation, to name a few.
But many families still prefer the burial method and "arguably grave reuse makes burial the most sustainable and environmentally friendly option," Burk said.
In fact, the whole world is facing a cemetery crisis. But some countries have come up with creative ways to address the issue.
In Germany, for example, it's legal to reuse the same cemetery after several years. In France and Italy, plots are leased for 10 to 50 years. Thereafter, the family can choose to renew the plot for a fee. And in Spain and Greece, family members can rent an above-ground "niche," before the decomposed bodies are moved to a communal burial ground.
In other more crowded parts of the world, cremation is the norm. Yet even finding space for the ashes is a challenge. In Hong Kong, thousands of corpses are either in limbo or being laid to rest in six-year plots before being exhumed, according to a recent report by Financial Times.