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  Dr. Julie Rugg
  Centre for Housing Policy
  University of York
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Aren't cemeteries and churchyards the same thing?

Cemeteries can and should be distinguished from churchyards. Churchyards, traditionally, are places of burial connected to churches either physically or through their ownership by the Church of England. Their use has been recorded since the eighth century.

It is important to distinguish between cemeteries and churchyards because they operate under different kinds of legislation. Churchyards are consecrated tracts of land subject to Church or Canon law. Certain types of activity within a churchyard – such as reserving burial space or removing headstones – require ‘permission’ or faculty. Cemeteries may contain consecrated sections, which are also subject to Church law. However, for the most part cemeteries are managed under civic legislation.

It is possible to argue that, in material terms, churchyards and cemeteries constitute two different kinds of burial space. Churchyards are often small in extent, and perhaps cover no more than a couple of acres (0.8 hectares). Cemeteries are often laid out on a bigger scale: the largest are over 100 acres in size (40 hectares). Although historically status could be attached to the location of burial within a churchyard, for the most part its internal landscape lacks intentional design. By contrast, cemeteries – large tracts of land located on the outskirts of settlement, initially – came into common use from the 1820s, and often designated higher-status burial areas at major junctions and next to major roads and paths. Cemeteries are almost always owned by statutory authorities.

However, some sites sit at the ‘boundary’ between churchyard and cemetery. For example, in many rural areas, successive generations may have extended an ancient churchyard to accommodate burials, but have more recently used civic legislation to add a ‘cemetery’ to the extended churchyard. No obvious distinction may be evident on viewing the site, but part will be managed by the Parochial Church Council, and part by the Parish Council.

In the UK we are continued to use burial space in both cemeteries and churchyards. A lot of churchyards located centrally in towns and cities were closed in the nineteenth century, as a consequence of concerns about public health. However, Victorian investment in new church building meant that in many places new churchyards were laid out towards a city’s periphery, often at the same time that new cemeteries were being developed. Furthermore, many churchyards were extended when space was required. In many rural locations, villages are still reliant on churchyard space.

Rugg, J. (2000) ‘Defining the place of burial: what makes a cemetery a cemetery?’, Mortality , 5, 259-75.

How many cemeteries are there?

District, town and parish councils and London boroughs probably own the majority of cemeteries. It is difficult to be exact since the number of cemeteries in operation in the UK is not known. A reasonable figure may be close to 4,000. A typical cemetery might be around 5-10 acres in extent, and have been opened between 1850 and 1880.

The then Department for Constitutional Affairs (soon to be the Ministry of Justice) completed a survey of burial grounds in 2006. The survey covered England and Wales, and received returns on over 9,747 burial sites. Of these, 70 per cent were churchyards. Returns were received for 2,907 cemeteries.

Survey findings available from:

Who owns cemeteries?

There is no statutory duty to provide burial space. As a consequence, provision tends to be ad hoc and is largely uncoordinated at any level – parish, district, regional or national. Almost all district councils own and manage cemeteries, although in more rural areas this provision tends to be under the control of town and parish councils. A large minority of parish councils either contribute to a joint cemetery committee or own and manage cemeteries themselves. Research on London boroughs indicates a range of providers that includes some private companies.

In addition to municipal cemeteries and churchyards, burial space is also provided by other religious denominations. In the nineteenth century, protestant Nonconformists – Quakers, Baptists, Independents and Methodists – often used burial space close to their places of worship. Some are still in use. Roman Catholic burial grounds are also in operation. Muslim communities were also being served with burial space provided by charitable trusts and private sector operators. The Jewish community also has a tradition of providing burial space for its own exclusive use, either by arrangement with a local authority to use part of an existing cemetery; or through direct ownership and management of a site.

An audit of London cemeteries is available from:

The following websites give examples of burial grounds specific to Muslim, Roman Catholic and Jewish communities:'s_Roman_Catholic_Cemetery  &

What is green burial?

There is a slowly increasing private sector involvement in cemeteries, most markedly through the ‘Green burial’ movement. In 2012, there were more than 250 green burial sites in operation. A major study completed at the University of Sheffield has contributed substantially to an understanding of the ownership and management of green burial sites.

‘Green burial’ tends to lack exact definition, but in popular understanding tends to connote land in which burial takes place and trees are planted on or close to the grave. A number of private sector individuals and businesses now provide ‘green’ burial space; ‘green’ commemorative options are also available in many local authority cemeteries; and some charitable trusts have been established, to operate woodland cemeteries. The Ministry of Justice has produced guidance on the management of green burial sites, but this activity is largely unregulated.

University of Sheffield research:

The Natural Death Centre lists green burial sites in the UK , and gives further information on the green burial movement:

Ken West (2010) A Guide to Natural Burial, London: Shaw and Sons.

Ministry of Justice guidance on green burial can be found here:

Aren’t there a lot of closed cemeteries?

Most cemeteries are still in use. Based on data collected in 2000 on 1416 cemeteries in England, 80 per cent were open (with twenty or more new graves available for burial) and a further 11 per cent were open but limited (with fewer than twenty new graves available). It should be noted that up to sixty per cent of burials are ‘reopens’, that is, interment in existing family graves. Seventy-five per cent of cemeteries that were established in the 1851-1914 period are still open. The majority of England’s historically and ecologically important cemetery landscapes are located within working cemeteries.

Dunk, J. and Rugg, J. (1994) The Management of Old Cemetery Land : Now and the Future , Crayford: Shaw and Sons.

How do we protect important cemeteries?

There is no specific legislation to protect cemetery landscapes that are deemed to have historic value. Planning regulations relating to listing are not readily applicable to cemeteries, where the landscape comprises a mixture of natural and built features. Many individual memorials are listed, but few cemeteries are listed in their entirety. The English Heritage ‘Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England’ also covers cemeteries; recent work has substantially increased the number listed. In 2007, English Heritage produced Paradise Preserved, which offers guidance for local authorities on conservation aspects of cemetery management.

Further information on cemetery conservation can be found on the English Heritage website:

How many people are buried, and how many cremated?

According to the Office of National Statistics, there were 493,242 deaths registered in England and Wales in 2010, compared with 491,348 in 2009 and 537,877 in 2000. In England, in the vast majority of cases, deaths are followed by cremation: in 2010, the current cremation rate was just over 73 per cent. However, in a significant and growing number of cases, cremations are themselves followed by the formal burial of cremated remains at cemeteries, crematoria and churchyards.

In addition, it should be noted that certain religious groups do not favour cremation, including Muslim and Jewish people.

ONS mortality reports available here:

The Cremation Society of Great Britain has statistics on cremation:

How much does it cost to be buried?

Fees and burial charges vary substantially. Research completed on behalf of the Confederation of Burial Authorities in 2000/2001 found a range from £6 to £4000 for burial rights in a double grave. In 2006, research by the Manchester Unity Friendly Society indicated that burial charges varied substantially whilst cremation charges tended to be around the same amount. No research has been completed on the way in which burial authorities arrive at the fees they charge, and any conclusions on the issue have to be drawn by inference and anecdote.

In England, people do not ‘buy’ graves. Two options are available. In the case of an ‘unpurchased’ or ‘public’ grave, interment takes place in a grave owned by the local authority. A grave may contain one or coffins of unrelated individuals, since the local authority decides how the plot is to be used. A second option is the purchase of a burial right, for a particular grave. These graves are called ‘private’ or ‘purchased’ graves. The owner of the burial right retains the right to decide who is buried in a given plot.

The duration of burial rights is defined by burial authorities themselves. When cemeteries were first established, burial was ‘in perpetuity’, ie forever. More recent legislation has defined ‘perpetuity’ as one hundred years. Most burial authorities sell rights that last perhaps fifty years. Both public and private graves are subject to legislation on the disturbance of human remains (below).

The grave can be dug to provide space for a flexible number, depending on soil conditions. For example, if the grave is dug for three interments, the first interment would be dug to sufficient depth to allow for subsequent burials on top. Legislation specifies the amount of space to be left between each coffin, and the depth soil between the final coffin and the surface.

Many local authorities now have websites that give details of their fees and charges for burial and cremation, and the types of graves and memorials they provide. The Bereavement Services Portal can be searched geographically and by cemetery name:

Isn’t it illegal to disturb human remains?

Once interred, human remains cannot be disturbed without a special licence from the Ministry of Justice. This requirement is defined by s25 of the Burial Act 1857. A licence is required even where remains are disturbed accidentally. Licenses have never been made available for the purpose of reusing a site for burial, although there are many instances of licenses being issued for the removal of bodies from churchyards to facilitate building, road-widening and other developments.

It is possible for exhumations to take place ‘from one consecrated place of burial to another by faculty granted by the ordinary for that purpose’ without need of a Ministry licence. Essentially, this means that where an exhumation is taking place in consecrated ground, with any remains re-interred in consecrated ground, then faculty only is required.

Again, the Ministry of Justice website provides information on the legalities of exhumation:

Is England running out of burial space?

England is facing a shortage of burial space. This situation reflects the inability to reuse burial space, as happens in most Continental countries. A detailed burial survey was completed for the capital by the Greater London Authority, and was published in 2011.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the problem is not restricted to large metropolitan areas. Other burial authorities – some in rural locations – also report problems for example with financing the purchase of new land for burial, and securing appropriate land at a reasonable distance from the community to be served.

London burial audit available at:

What can we do about running out of burial space?

Difficulties with burial authorities running out of space for interment have led to discussion of appropriate strategies. Some options that have been discussed and rejected include:

  • above-ground burial in mausolea: popular on the Continent, but only sustainable if niches are reused periodically, and the re-use of niches would be subject to existing regulation on grave re-use;
  • more intensive use of existing space: many local authorities are already using space between graves, alongside paths and roads and even mounding additional earth on top of existing burials in order to create new graves;
  • promote cremation: the UK already has one of the highest cremation rates in the world, following an aggressive, century-long, propaganda campaign by cremation organisations. This rate is unlikely to increase unless cremation was made compulsory, which is not an acceptable option.

One option that has had more widespread acceptance is the reuse of graves. Discussion of reuse options began in 1994, following a paper on the issue addressed to the conference of the (then) Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration by Ian Hussein, who was at that time the cemetery superintendent at the London Borough of Newham. Discussion of reuse focussed on the option of the ‘lift and deepen’ method. Under this method, graves are excavated to their deepest depth, with all remains – including bodes and any coffin furniture – placed in a casket and re-interred at the bottom of the grave. In 1994, over seventy burial authorities together funded research completed by Douglas Davies and Alistair Shaw on public response to the reuse of grave. The research team interviewed 1603 members of the public, and found that the majority of respondents would not object to this system if it was well-regulated, and if disturbance took place only after one hundred years.

In 2000-2001 the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, under the aegis of chairman Andrew Bennett, completed an inquiry into cemeteries. The Committee’s report was wide-ranging, and made a large number of recommendations. With regard to reuse, the Committee concluded:

‘If the public are to continue to have access to affordable, accessible burial in cemeteries fit for the needs of the bereaved, there appears to be no alternative to grave reuse’.

For the Eighth Report of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, and the Government’s response see:

What is the government doing about reuse of graves?

In 2004, the Home Office issued a consultation document on possible changes to burial law. The public was invited to respond to suggested changes in Burial Law and Policy in the 21 st Century: The Need for a Sensitive and Sustainable Approach. The changes introduced the possible reuse of graves. It should be noted that in June 2005, the Home Office Coroners Unit, which had responsibility for burial matters was transferred to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Ms Harriet Harman, the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs stated in November 2005 the intention to public a summary of responses to the consultation exercise, and indicated the intention to ‘consider sympathetically the case for enabling the re-use of old burial grounds, seeking a balance between the interests of relatives and descendents and the wider needs of the local community.’ On 27th February 2007, Ms Harman – in responding to a Commons question – stated that the DCA was moving forward ‘innovatively’ on the reuse of old burial grounds, and made reference to new legislation being framed for London.

This comment made reference to the London Local Authorities Bill, which conferred – in clause 114 – the right to reuse graves in London boroughs. In London, local authorities have powers to reclaim a grave that has not been used for at least seventy five years, and use any space in the grave in which no interment has taken place. Clause 114 grants local authorities the right to re-use graves in where the burial right has been reclaimed by the local authority. However, local authorities have hitherto been reluctant to use this legislation.

But did I not hear that graves were being re-used in some parts of London?

At one London cemetery – the City of London, in Newham – the decision has been taken to re-use graves under faculty. In a consecrated section of the site, the local authority is re-using graves by disinterring any remains, and reinterring them in a ‘designated’ grave, so releasing the grave for use by another family. The last interments in these graves took place eighty years ago. The local authority is operating according to strict protocols, which preclude the disturbance of any remains more substantial than minor bone or coffin fragments. Any remains are placed in a hessian sack before being re-interred in the designated grave, and in no instance are remains cremated or taken away from the site. So far, more than 200 graves have been made available for re-use using this process.

What would happen with old monuments if graves are re-used?

There has been some discussion of what should happen to memorials in a re-use scenario. The Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management is currently considering how historic conservation principles can be integrated into re-use plans, through the medium of a conservation management plan.

It is probable that re-use would be targeted at areas where there are no memorials. The clearance of all grave furniture was a popular and common maintenance option for cemetery managers in the period after the First World War. The process was gradual, and reflected a modernist rejection of Victorian aesthetics and an embracing of new lawn cemetery design. As a first measure, local authorities would usually flatten body mounds, which were raised earth platforms – around 60 cm high - marking the grave. Steps would then be taken to bury kerbsets. None of these procedures entailed disturbance of remains. Clearance procedures accelerated in the post-World War II period, and included the removal of entire monuments. In 1977, a clarified process for clearance was provided in the Local Authorities Cemeteries Order. An Audit Commission Report of 1988 encouraged local authorities to undertake clearance programmes as a way of easing the burden of grounds maintenance.

Audit Commission (1988) Competitive Management of Parks and Green Spaces, London : HMSO.

Rugg, J. (2006) ‘Lawn cemeteries: the emergence of a new landscape of death’, Urban History, 33, 213-233.


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