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   Inside Out - North East: Monday January 10, 2005


Cemeteries in crisis but who will act to tackle the tumbling stones?

The dangerous condition of tombstones in cemeteries is causing grave concern in the North East and Cumbria.

So how do we cope with the growing crisis in our graveyards and could medieval-style ossuaries provide the answer to cemetery overcrowding?

A peaceful final resting place is something we consider as a right in today's civilised society.

But in the North East and Cumbria the condition of many cemeteries is causing serious safety concerns.

Tombstones are being laid down flat by many local councils to protect visitors from the dangers of toppling stones.

Some cemeteries are deemed so dangerous that whole sections are being cordoned off, and relatives of the dead must book appointments to visit individual graves.

Public at risk

Over the last decade four people have died in Britain as a result of memorials toppling over and there have been countless injuries to the public and cemetery workers.

Funeral casket
Could ossuaries provide an alternative to burials?
Six-year-old Reuben Powell from North Yorkshire died of head injuries when a six-foot memorial stone fell on him in a Harrogate cemetery in 2000.

Although older headstones can topple due to disrepair, a growing problem is the newer 'lawn memorials' which have a narrow base which does not penetrate far into the ground.

As a result this modern style of memorial is inherently unstable.

Legally the person who bought the memorial is responsible for the gravestone but if he or she can't be traced, the cemetery authority becomes liable.

Burying the dead

Another problem is the lack of land for accommodating the dead - villages, town and cities are simply running out of burial space.

Six hundred thousand people die every year, 70 per cent of whom are cremated but the remaining 30 per cent are buried.

Fallen headstone
Neglect and vandalism has led to tumbling tombstones
Some cemeteries are already full, with others forced to dig up pathways and flower beds to create more space.

The problem is compounded by outmoded burial laws which make it an offence to tamper with a grave

The Burial Act of 1857 made it illegal to disturb bodies without a special licence from the Home Office.

The law dates back to the days of Burke and Hare when grave robbers pillaged tombs for bodies.

Today the exhumation of both buried and cremated remains requires a Home Office licence unless the site is to be cleared for development.

Cemeteries in crisis

The Confederation of Burial Authorities (CBA) has identified the reasons for the poor state of some cemeteries including:

  • * cuts in town hall budgets,
  • * reduced on-site security,
  • * less regular maintenance due to cost-cutting.
Final resting place? Under new plans bones could be moved

This neglect has allowed vandalism and increasing theft with the result that many memorials and headstones are becoming a safety hazard.

Many cemeteries have or are soon to reach the end of their lives. It is the CBA's view that a system of re-use must be introduced soon.

Such a move is seen to be essential if more land is not to be developed for cemetery use, sometimes many miles from the communities it is designed to serve.

Old bones?

Another idea is to develop ossuaries - buildings or sites designed to serve as the final resting place of human skeletons.

Ossuaries date back to medieval times when limited cemetery space in some European countries led to the reuse of burial plots and the recovery of human remains to be stored as bones.

In Britain the practice is unusual although Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell near Northampton has an ossuary in its crypt.

A resurrection of this solution to an age-old problem could give new meaning to the term 'shelf life'.

Time for action

The Government recognises that our burial law is out of date and recently set up a commission to examine solutions to the problem.

The Facts

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

Research shows that up to 75% of the bereaved never visit family graves.

About 900 licences are granted every year to exhume bodies, mostly to allow people moving address to take the remains with them.

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

* create a burial ground inspectorate responsible for restoring decaying cemeteries

* introduce cemetery business and management plans

* involve voluntary groups (cemetery friends) in cemetery maintenance


The Home Office favours opening up old graves and reusing them to make more room for the dead.

This so-called "lift and deepen" method involves exhuming any remains left in a grave and reinterring them deeper in the same plot to allow space for new burials on top.

It argues that re-using graves may be a cheaper option than developing new burial sites.

This also enables tombstones to be re-used, with additional names being added as further burials are carried out.

The plan marks a shift away from the idea that graves should remain undisturbed for ever.

Grave situation

Research shows that 70 per cent of the public would be in favour of reuse, provided that long enough has lapsed since the original burial, perhaps 100 years.

Supporters argue that the reuse of graves could lead to more accessible and safer burial sites within local communities, providing the issue is handled sensitively.

But not everybody is enthusiastic about the modernisation of what is an age-old process.

The main objections to reusing graves are religious beliefs, environmental concerns and loss of cultural heritage.

Some religious groups do not like the idea of bodies being shunted around and disturbed.

However the Government accepts that there's no question of making the reuse of graves compulsory.

The Government has also ruled out reuse of graves of historical importance, or where memorials of cultural or heritage value might be damaged.

An anchor solution?

Another potential solution to the problem is the "Newcastle Anchor" placed below each new memorial to prevent graves falling or being pushed over.

John Knapton
Digging deep for solutions - John Knapton

John Knapton, a leading structural engineer from Newcastle, has developed the device and has tested it successfully in Cumbria.

But the clock is ticking and cemeteries are running out of space and time.

In extreme situations people are paying £4,000 for a hole in the ground.

Action is clearly needed urgently to tackle the growing problem before more cemeteries fall into terminal disrepair and neglect.

Read John Knapton's Q & A about burials and the cemetery crisis.
See also ...

Inside Out: North East
Cemetery web chat

On the rest of Inside Out
Alternative Funerals

Graves protest could go to court (News)
BBC News - Graveyard tragedy (News)

On the rest of the web
Home Office official website
The Federation of British Cremation Authorities
National Association of Memorial Masons
University of York official website - Cemetery Research Group
Cruse Bereavement Care official website
John Knapton official website
Times Online - 12 feet under

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Mike Temple.
In my opinion, the most sensible solution is cremation, with an entry into a book of rememberance at the crematorium, and perhaps a "wall of rememberance", with a plaque recording the name and relevant details of the person departed. Once the books of rememberance are full, they can be passed to the local records office for safe-keeping and fuure perusal by decendants. There maybe objections from some groups on religious grounds, but unless these are considered serious and relevant, I think cremation for all is going to become the answer for the future.

dennis baines
delighted at John Knaptons invention and hope this overcomes future laying down problems. I myself are against this laying down of stones. personaly I think we should be looking to raise funds to have the stones re-set. In some case just another bucket full of cement would solve the stone or curbs problems.If you want evidence of adult vandalism then you need to visit linthorpe cemetery Middlesbrough and see the councils effort and attitude to ancient stones there, many good quality stones smashed and in some cases laid face down...what good is that? To me it all smacks of an hidden agenda,eg, lay the stones, then after awhile clear the site and turn into a park where all the council need do is dash across with the dreaded grass cutter.

Diane Laws
My comments concern another article shown on last nights programme - sponsoring wells in villages. Do you have any information as to how I could donate to this very worthy initiative.

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