Suffolk: Reuse of graves ‘needed to solve dwindling burial space’

Bury St Edmunds Cemetery

Bury St Edmunds Cemetery - Credit: Archant

GRAVES should be reused to prevent Suffolk running out of burial space, experts have said.

The move, suggested by cemetery managers and campaigners, would allow some existing burials to be deepened and up to two new interments added on top.

The Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium management are now calling on the Government to take up burial legislation – shelved before the last general election – to avoid a “looming crisis.”

Sue MacDonald, cemeteries registrar at St Edmundsbury Borough Council, said lack of space was “a real issue” across Suffolk and said a change in the law was needed to allow graves to be reused.

She added: “It’s an issue everywhere to be quite honest. Until they change the law on the reuse of graves then nothing will change. They do it in some London boroughs where they have particular problems with burial space.

“Unfortunately, it has not spread to the rest of the country though.”

In London, families have been contacted about private graves that have not been used for more than 75 years and that are known to have depth for at least two more burials.

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On some historic graves, the memorial has one set of names put on the back and the most recent name on the front.

Ms MacDonald said she did not think it was true that a “lift and deepen” policy, which would see existing interments reburied deeper with new interments, would create public uneasiness.

She added: “If I could have a pound for every time I meet people in the cemetery who say ‘Look at all this old space, all these old graves, why don’t we reuse them?’ People are quite accepting of that, they don’t think it is a weird idea.”

Ms MacDonald, who is also responsible for the Haverhill Cemetery and 11 closed churchyards, said the changes would help people be buried closer to where they live.

The Bury St Edmunds Cemetery in Kings Road, has been closed to full burials since 2004 – with recent interments only taking place on pre-purchased plots or family graves. New burials are currently interred in West Suffolk Crematorium and Cemetery in Risby.

Ms MacDonald said the council was also in the early stages of looking for an alternative Haverhill site.

Although Ipswich Borough Council said there was space in their cemeteries for the next 15 years, Suffolk Coastal District Council said the “need for land is a constant issue” for the local authority and the town councils in its district.

A spokesman added: “At present we are all continuing to meet the demand for more spaces and the inevitably emotive issue of reusing a grave is not one that we have yet had to seriously address.”

Tim Morris, chief executive officer of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium management, described the situation as a “looming crisis”.

He added: “In between five and 10 years, 25% of UK will have new burial facility. It is quite alarming really.

“Reuse is common in lots of countries and it was common practice in the UK until the 1850s. It seems reuse could be a straightforward answer to a lot of problems.

“Fewer than 30% of people still want to be buried and where it is people’s religious or personal belief, that’s going to continue. We are looking at a crisis, there’s a real crisis looming.”

Mr Morris said that although a select committee enquiry in 2001 had recommended grave reuse and some pilot sites had been identified, the policy was shelved before the last election.

Melanie Hunnaball, founder and co director of the Hunnaball Family Funeral Group and public relations officer for the National Association of Funeral Directors for Essex and Suffolk said the issue was a “sensitive one” but that multiple burials was something that had been traditional.

She added: “Nowadays people are a bit reluctant to reuse a lot of burial space but there is a move towards reusing churchyard burial space.”

Ms Hunnaball also said that farmers – who recognise the premium of burial space – had been approaching funeral directors to ask about using arable or dairy fields as woodland burial sites.

She added: “Farmers over the last few years, the subsidies haven’t been great and farming as such, arable and agricultural and dairy famers are losing a lot of their business so they are looking to reuse their land. So they’re trying to turn them into woodland burial sites.

“We probably get a handful of people, every year across our branch that approach us. But it’s not easy as people are still very squeamish, it’s a nimby thing.”

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “There are currently no plans to change the policy on re-use of graves. However, we keep this under constant review.”