It is important to distinguish between different types of burial space in the UK. A definitional framework can be found following this link: Burial typology (PDF , 48kb). 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 also possible to argue that, in material terms, churchyards and cemeteries constitute two different kinds of burial space. Churchyards are generally 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). Historically, status could be attached to the location of burial within a churchyard, but 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 internal roads and pathways. Cemeteries are almost always owned by statutory authorities.
Nevertheless, some sites sit at the ‘boundary’ between churchyard and cemetery. For example, in many rural areas, earlier generations may have extended an ancient churchyard to accommodate burials, but in more recent years 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 continue to use burial space in both cemeteries and churchyards. Many 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 new churchyards were often laid out towards a city’s periphery, 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.
Rugg, J. (2014) Churchyard and Cemetery: Tradition and Modernity in Rural North Yorkshire, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
The majority of cemeteries in England are owned by district, town and parish councils and London boroughs. It is difficult to be exact since the number of cemeteries in operation is not known. A reasonable figure may be close to 4,000. A typical cemetery might be around 5-10 acres (2-4 hectares) in extent, and have been opened between 1850 and 1880. It will subsequently have been extended at least once.
The then Department for Constitutional Affairs (which became 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 are available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/burial-grounds-the-results-of-a-survey-of-burial-grounds-in-england-and-wales
In 2011, an audit of burial provision was undertaken by CRG for the Greater London Authority, covering all London boroughs. The report is available: Audit of London Burial Provision (PDF , 1,199kb)
Statistics on cremation in the UK are available from the Cremation Society of Great Britain: http://www.srgw.info/CremSoc4/Stats/index.html
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. In 2011, an audit of burial provision in London indicated a range of providers that included some private companies: Audit of London Burial Provision (PDF , 1,199kb)
In addition to municipal cemeteries and churchyards, burial space is also provided by other religious denominations. In the nineteenth century, protestant Nonconformists – including Quakers, Baptists, Independents and Methodists – often used burial space close to their places of worship. Some of these burial grounds 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.
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 connotes 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 green burial sites operate as charitable trusts. The Ministry of Justice has produced guidance on the management of green burial sites, but this activity is largely unregulated.
The Natural Death Centre lists green burial sites in the UK, and gives further information on the green burial movement:
The concept of green burial was devised by Ken West. His own guidelines are published as:
Ken West (2010) A Guide to Natural Burial, London: Shaw and Sons.
The first major academic study of green burial was published in 2015:
Clayden, A., Green, T., Hockey, J. and Powell, M. (2015) Natural Burial: Landscape, Practice and Experience, Abingdon: Routledge.
Ministry of Justice guidance on green burial can be found here:
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. The study showed that seventy-five per cent of cemeteries that were established in the 1851-1914 period were 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.
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 on conservation aspects of cemetery management.
According to the Office of National Statistics, there were 529,655 deaths registered in England and Wales in 2015. In England, in the vast majority of cases, deaths are followed by cremation. In 2014, there were 273 crematoria in operation, and the cremation rate was just over 77 per cent. Cremations may be followed by the formal burial of cremated remains at cemeteries, crematoria and churchyards.
Certain religious groups do not favour cremation, including Muslim and Jewish people.
ONS mortality reports are available here:
The Cremation Society of Great Britain has statistics on cremation: http://www.srgw.info/CremSoc4/Stats/National/ProgressF.html
Fees and burial charges vary substantially. 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.
Both burial and cremation fees have increased in the last few years, above the rate of inflation: Disbursement fees (PDF , 286kb)
There has been recent concern about the affordability of disbursements and funeral costs generally:
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:
See: Julie Rugg (2016) 'Cost, choice and diversity: policy issues in burial and cremation in England', in L. Foster and K. Woodthorpe (eds) Death and Social Policy in Challenging Times, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Once interred, human remains cannot be disturbed without a special licence from the Ministry of Justice. This law ensures that notifications and permission have been obtained for exhumations for forensic or family reasons. 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 re-using 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.
The Burial Act, 1857 also allowed 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 (S25). Essentially, this meant that where an exhumation is taking place in consecrated ground, with any remains re-interred in consecrated ground, then faculty only is required. Under Church law, it has been possible to re-use churchyards for - in some instances - centuries. Each diocese sets is own 'best practice' guidelines on churchyard management.
The Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure, 2014 has subsequently made changes to the Burial Act, 1857. S2 of the Measure made a slight amendment to the wording of S25, which now allows for the disturbance of remains in churchyards and other consecrated ground without need for re-interment in consecrated ground. This change of wording permits a 'lift and deepen' approach to grave re-use in consecrated ground without a Ministry of Justice licence. This aspect of the Measure was enacted from January, 2015.
Ministry of Justice website provides information on the legalities of exhumation: http://www.justice.gov.uk/coroners-burial-cremation/burials
England is facing a shortage of burial space. This situation reflects the inability to reuse burial space, as happens in most Continental countries. An audit of burial space in London, published in 2011, indicated that many London authorities are facing burial shortages, and often deal with the issue by maximising land use by digging up pathways and creating additional burial depth by adding topsoil: Audit of London Burial Provision (PDF , 1,199kb)
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. A survey by the BBC, completed in 2013, found that a quarter of the local authorities responding only had sufficient burial space only for the next ten years.
In 2004, the Home Office issued a consultation document on possible changes to burial law including the possible re-use of graves: Burial Law Consultation 2004 (PDF , 508kb).
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 that a summary of responses would be published, 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 descendants 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.
The London Local Authorities Bill conferred – in clause 114 – the right to re-use 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.
The Coalition Government has made little progress with addressing the issue. The Government's position was summarised in a House of Commons Briefing Paper published in November 2013. In September, 2012, Helen Grant, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice commented: 'we have not yet reached the stage where the position is critical or requires Government intervention'. The issue would remain 'under review.'
On 5th September 2014, Dr Matthew Offord, Conservative MP for Hendon, tabled a debate on burial space in London. Simon Hughes, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice indicated that he was holding meetings to review policy on the subject and made the following comment:
'The position I inherited was that the Government had said for some time that they wished to keep this subject under review. In the weeks ahead, encouraged by people such as my hon. Friend, I want to be in a position to move forward from that holding position. This debate and the coming meetings will help us properly to consider whether, for example, it would now be appropriate to discuss enabling legislation that would permit other local authorities outside Greater London to permit the reuse of graves in their areas. That would of course have to be after full consultation on the idea and on any proposed legislation with the communities affected, and democratic deliberation and decisions by the local councils in question. There may also be other things we need to do in Greater London, and beyond, that Government can either facilitate or enable. I am determined not only that the Government should be active in anticipating the problem and dealing with it but that we act in the right way. I offer the House and colleagues, and all those professionally involved, a clear commitment to continue working on and engaging with this issue to make sure that we come to some conclusions on the way forward over the next few weeks and months.'
Since that time, successive English Ministers have made no further progress.
In Scotland, the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016 has made allowance for the 'restoration to use' of abandoned lairs (graves): Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016 (PDF , 545kb)
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. Hundreds of graves have been made available for re-use using this process.
Press responses have been largely positive:
Detailed guidance on re-use processes has been produced on behalf of the London Environmental Directors Network:
There has been some discussion of what should happen to memorials in cases where graves are re-used. 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.