Recycled graves – coming soon to a cemetery near you

For 150 years, Britain has tightly restricted the re-use of graves. That may be about to change

This article was first published in The Spectator on 15 June 2013.

Gary Burks

Gary Burks, superintendent of the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium (Photo: Mark Greaves)

Two marble graves are side by side. One is grey and encrusted, with moss growing over the top. The other is smooth and shiny white. It looks new but, in fact, like the grave next to it, it’s more than 100 years old. It’s not just been cleaned — its top layer has been shaved off completely. On its front are potted plants, hydrangeas and a can of Guinness. These are tributes to its new resident.

Its old resident, Robert John, died in 1894. His inscription is still there, on the back of the headstone. His remains are there, too, if they haven’t disappeared into the soil.

John’s grave is among 700 or so that have been re-used, or ‘shared’, in the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium in east London. They are all at least 75 years old. Any remains that are found are put in a hessian sack and reburied. A chatty porter admits it’s ‘a bit controversial’. ‘Not everyone is happy with it,’ he says.

The re-use of a grave is extremely rare in Britain. It is allowed in London, but not generally elsewhere. The Ministry of Justice won’t approve it. But the people who run them believe it’s the only way they can safeguard their cemeteries’ future.

And it’s slowly becoming more common. The London borough of Enfield has recently started the practice. Southwark and Westminster are considering it.

Gary Burks, the superintendent in charge of the cemetery, run by the City of London Corporation, is giving me a tour. He is burly and shaven-headed and a bit East End. He claims that over the past ten years people have become more accepting of re-use. ‘We spell out the choices to everyone. There are no secrets.’ Some families, he says, even go ‘shopping for themselves’, selecting the grave they will be buried in.

Burks knows the place quite well. He’s worked here for 28 years. He used to dig the graves and mow the lawn. Before that, his father was a gravedigger here, and his family lived on site — he moved into the cemetery when he was seven. ‘I don’t tend to get lost,’ he says.

As we drive round, he rattles off statistics. There are 25,000 roses. Seven miles of roads; 150,000 burials. It opened in 1856 and is beautiful, with huge tree-lined driveways.

Before the cemetery re-uses any of its graves, it has to announce that it is doing so, with public notices in the cemetery and adverts in papers. It tries to contact the families of those buried there, who have the right to veto any re-use for a generation. Recently, the cemetery claimed 200 graves for re-use. Only one family wrote back saying they did not want the grave disturbed.

We go back to Burks’s office and I ask him what the alternative to re-use would be. He looks slightly angry. ‘It depends how much damage I do to the heritage value of the site,’ he says. To cram in more graves he would have to ‘rip up the trees or the shrubbery or the planted areas’. One cemetery nearby, he explains, ‘dug up all its roads’. He is appalled. ‘It undermines everything that a cemetery is about.’

Read the rest of the article here.