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24 September 2014
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Grave yard

Grave concern - a lack of burial space.

Burial land shortage

Although over 70% of Londoners are cremated, roughly 10,000 people a year are still buried in the capital. And there's no getting away from it - London is running out of burial space fast. Plus join the web debate below...

Cemetery Fact File

There are about 25,000 burial grounds in England and Wales.

Alternatives to traditional burials include:

* eco-coffins and woodland burials where trees supplant headstones

* ossuaries - famous sites include Sedlec (Czech Republic) and Verdun (France)

* sea burials - complex guidelines including the need for a special licence

Other possible solutions:

* dig new graves deeper to enable more burials

* multi-faith burial sites.

The capital needs about five acres of graveyard space a year just to meet the current demand.

Half of its 130 local authority cemeteries have no spare land available at all, while space in the other half will run out in 12 years.

Only a fifth of London's Church of England sites have undisturbed land available.

And because of London's cultural diversity, demand for burials is growing all the time.

Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians all strongly favour burial over cremation, as do people with Italian, Greek and Turkish roots.

Predictably, it's the Inner London boroughs that have the least amount of free burial space.

The problem is particularly pressing in Tower Hamlets, where demand is high because around 36% of the population are Muslim.

Moona Taslim

Moona Taslim of Haji Taslim Funerals.

There is no spare burial space at all in the borough, and most of the Muslims there have to bury their dead further out in Hainault, Forest Gate and Newham.

According to Moona Taslim, manager of the Haji Taslim funeral parlour in Whitechapel, "If [Tower Hamlets Muslims] choose to use another London borough cemetery, they're charged sometimes triple or quadruple rates if they're allowed to go in there...

"Faced with no other options there's not a lot else they can do, and I think a lot of them don't go and visit their loved ones as much as they want to".

Reclaiming burial sites

As far as the Greater London Authority is concerned, it is far preferable for councils to reuse existing burial sites rather than creating new cemeteries.

The reclamation of graves is a practice that has been going on since 1976, when councils were granted the power to add bodies to existing graves that had room, as long as the bodies already there were not disturbed.

Ian Hussein

Ian Hussein from City of London Cemetery

"We've ruled out all the alternatives", says Ian Hussein, Director of the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium.

"People have suggested compulsory cremation, burying people standing up, and so on and so on. Reuse is the only viable alternative".

But since September 2007, councils have powers under the London Local Authorities Act 2007 to disturb graves older than 75 years, with the consent of any relatives.

This means that remains can be buried deeper down in the same grave, creating new space for bodies to be buried on top.

Waking the dead

The Labour-controlled Council in Tower Hamlets have been investigating several options for creating new burial space.

One option under consideration was Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, a 33-acre site containing around 350,000 bodies. No new burials have taken place here since 1966 though, so it makes sense for the council to follow GLA guidelines and consider it for reuse.

Graveyard

Is exhuming bodies the way forward?

However, when news broke in the local press that the Cemetery Park might be reopened as a multi-faith burial ground, there was outrage from many local residents.

"If there's space then fine…", says Laura Cobbett, whose grandfather is buried in the Cemetery Park.

"If not, then we're not happy for any bodies to be exhumed. I'm sure there are lots of people exactly like us that have relations here and just want them to lie to rest".

Vital green spaces

As well as peoples' anger at the prospect of graves being disturbed, there's also opposition to the idea of losing an ecological resource.

For the last seven years, the Cemetery Park has been run as the borough's first nature reserve.

It is tended by around 1,600 volunteers, and around 7,000 schoolchildren visit each year for outdoor nature lessons.

Tower Hamlets Cemetery

Tower Hamlets Cemetery and Nature Park.

The controversy pressured Tower Hamlets Council into stating that while they are "considering a number of options", there are currently "no plans to reopen Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park as a cemetery".

With the Cemetery Park no longer being an option, the Council are now considering acquiring a brownfield site - the Bow Common Gas Works.

However, the site is relatively small, and is very possibly contaminated. Their third option is sourcing a site outside of the borough, which would hardly be convenient for those wanting to visit their loved ones.

Talk of 'waking the dead' provokes strong emotional responses in people.

But with the chronic lack of burial space in the capital, it will only be a matter of time before Londoners might have to adjust their attitudes to grave recycling, and the whole notion of a 'final' resting place.

Read more about cemeteries in London... and join the web debate below.

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Kew's stunning Palm House.

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We want your views on burial and the lack of land for cemeteries...

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last updated: 07/11/07

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