Grave mistakes

February 17, 1995

Tony Walter argues that it is time that the British turned their attention to their overcrowded cemeteries. Christmas, 1994: Corina lost her struggle against cancer. She very much wanted to be buried in the local churchyard - at the heart of the little village she had latterly come to know and love as home and where her little daughter, not yet two, would grow up. When I rang the vicar a few hours after she died, it was with some relief that I heard him say that, yes, there was a space for her. It was only later I discovered it was the only space left.

Sally was not so lucky when her husband dropped dead in his early forties. A convinced Christian, she wanted him buried in a churchyard - not a municipal cemetery. Unfortunately, her church was in a large city, and had long since handed over responsibility for burial to the local authority. Only with difficulty did she find a church plot elsewhere that felt right to her and her two little children. Others less determined would not have succeeded.

Many people in Britain are fighting to save local facilities - the village school, the local post office. Yet without so much as a bleat, we have lost thousands of small local burial grounds. Seven out of ten of us will end up in the not-so-local crematorium, and many of the rest of us will lie in huge municipal cemeteries.

Most Britons, if they think about it at all, imagine the problem is shortage of land. Not so. Many countries in Europe, and even crowded Hong Kong, retain burial in a local cemetery as an option. They are able to do this because the remains are disinterred after a few years. In Hong Kong, the bones are cleaned and placed in an urn which is reburied and forms the focus of family picnics on days of remembrance. On the Greek islands, the bones are placed after a few years in a wooden box in a building at the back of the cemetery. In a little suburban cemetery on the outskirts of Antwerp that I visited, the community has determined that plots may be leased for eight years, after which the family is free to renew the lease as often as they like - but if they choose not to, the ground may be re-used. The result is that there is always an income for the cemetery, there is always room and all the graves are visited and cared for. The community feels that the cemetery is theirs and vandalism is unknown.

Contrast this with Britain. When an old burial ground is full, it is closed for burial - out of respect for the dead. Most of the Victorian municipal cemeteries are still in use, but many are huge. Mourners have to traipse past acres of graves 50 or 100 years old that are rarely visited. The problem is not so much shortage of land as the British refusal to recycle graves they will no longer tend.

Where does this British worry about digging up the dead come from? Permanent graves became the norm only in the 19th century as the masses moved to London and the new industrial towns, and the old system of burial and re-burial in a small churchyard broke down. But whereas other European countries rationalised the recycling system, we British opted for permanent out-of-town graves. But the cemeteries were badly funded - unlike in the United States which also opted for permanency. In the 20th century, as the cemeteries filled and income declined, local authorities promoted cremation as a more efficient and cost-effective solution, and now at 70 per cent the British cremation rate is the highest in western Europe.

The idea that we should not disturb the dead has become deep rooted. Historian Ruth Richardson suggests an intriguing source in her monograph Death, Dissection and the Destitute. The insatiable demand by the 18th-century anatomy schools for fresh corpses was met by unsavoury characters resurrecting bodies at night. In the 1820s Burke and Hare even went so far as to take action sooner and bump off likely candidates, avoiding the need for burial. The consequent outrage may well underlie the British desire for eternal security below ground, even though the nocturnal activities of the resurrection men were ended by the 1832 Anatomy Act.

Religion is also part of the story; Catholics and Greek Orthodox, unlike Protestants, envisage a period after death in which the soul is cleansed, matching the period under ground in which the decaying flesh disintegrates to leave clean bones. It is no coincidence that in the West cremation is correlated very strongly with Protestantism - indeed only in the 1960s did the Vatican accept cremation, and Orthodoxy still disapproves.

Though cremation may fit the no-nonsense, British sensibility, there will always be those who choose burial. The rapid increase in cremation is now plateauing. Burial is often the choice when the death is unexpected - cremation somehow seems too final. Others just do not like the idea of cremation, or want a grave to visit and to tend, which means it needs to be local. And they want the grave to remain undisturbed. Unfortunately, the desire to "rest in peace for evermore" has led to the closure of small local burial grounds, leaving urbanites and suburbanites who choose burial with a cemetery that may be remote and possibly less than secure.

What then is to be done? Many local authorities have begun to tackle the problem by offering grave leases of between 50 and 100 years. But it is far from clear what they intend to do after this, for the law at present does not allow them to re-use the graves. Authorities who suggest recycling old cemetery land and digging up great-grandad almost inevitably prompt hysteria in the local press, even if great-grandad hasn't been visited for 30 years and his stone is a disgrace.

The green burial movement advocates woodland burial, with a new tree taking the place of a headstone. This idea may find favour with many but will future generations be committed to keeping the woodland for evermore, in the way we are lumbered with Victorian cemeteries? Churches too could consider re-opening their closed churchyards, and once more serving the community in death as in life. Instead of pooh-poohing reburial as thoroughly un-British, we could try it and see if the demand is there - but we have to start with new cemeteries, or new sections of old cemeteries, not digging up forebears who thought they would be left undisturbed forever.

Rest in peace, Corina, but don't let us deny future generations what meant so much to her.

Tony Walter is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Reading.

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