UK

Viewpoints: No burial spaces - what should be done?

Southern Cemetery, Greater Manchester
Image caption One suggestion to resolve the problem is to reuse graves using a process known as "lift and deepen"

Almost half of England's cemeteries could run out of space within 20 years, a BBC survey suggests.

A quarter of 358 local authorities responding to the BBC said they would have no more room for burials within a decade.

Cemetery experts warned of a looming "crisis", while managers called for a change in the law to allow graves more than 75 years old to be reused.

BBC Local Radio approached 699 local authorities - 358 of which responded.

Many of the councils surveyed said they had five years or less before they would run out of room, while some areas have closed their cemeteries altogether because of lack of space.

What should be done about the lack of burial space?

Peter @PME2013 tweeted: Do what Germany does. Graves on 30-year renewable leases.

Graves are reused. New headstone, new burial. You can renew for another 30 yrs if family members still want to keep the grave.

Mark Murphy tweeted: As we run out of space for burials shouldn't we all be cremated? Or reuse old graves? Maybe we should double up more?

Justin Smith, managing director of Cemetery Development Services

Certainly in inner city areas, do what inner cities do best - instead of going outwards, go upwards.

We're designing mausoleums, which is very similar to what the Italians did after the war. The idea being "land for the living, not for the dead". As a result they started building high-rise mausoleums.

Instead of people seeing mausoleums as a dark, satanic, granite building, modern mausoleums are stunning to look at - very light, very airy [and] it takes up a fraction of the footprint required for interring the deceased.

Mausoleums are the future for inner city areas.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe BBC's John Maguire visits a cemetery which is expanding for a second time

David Wilkins tweeted: Why not bury bodies vertically using an Auger bit for hole?!

Huskypup tweeted: We should consider cremation. Running out of burial space, probably better for the land + less zombies to worry about.

Dr Hannah Rumble, teaching fellow in Anthropology, University of Aberdeen

I would question the received notion that there is a lack of burial space in Britain today. It is not an issue for all regions of the United Kingdom; London being an exception.

There has been a rapid proliferation of natural burial grounds opening in Britain since the late 1990s, so there are now more than 200 grounds of varying sizes. There is the option to be buried in one's private land, an option usually enjoyed by farmers and other landowners or one can be cremated and have one's ashes scattered rather than interred.

The underlying issue is not that there is a lack of burial space, rather there is a cultural expectation in Britain that burial is in perpetuity.

On the Continent, cemetery/burial space is managed very differently; in France and Italy for example, plots are leased for 10 to 50 years, thereafter the family can choose to renew the plot for a fee. But here in the United Kingdom, we have remained resistant to any disturbance to graves since the Burial Act of 1857.

Sheldon Goodman, of the Cemetery Club

People need to have a long, hard think about what happens to our loved ones when we go.

It can either go one of two ways: pull together and make new cemeteries, or readjust the way we think of what happens to us when we go, whether it be cremation or whatever.

The current way is unsustainable, cemeteries will get full, and people will be faced with the realisation that there may not be any decent place to inter their loved one.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionHong Kong also has a burial space problem (Video from 4 April 2013)

Dr Julie Rugg, of the University of York's Cemetery Research Group

After considering all the possible options, reusing graves is what we've decided is going to solve the problem.

When we talk about grave reuse, a lot of people talk about what remains in the grave as being something really substantial. [But] there's no point in digging people up and moving them if they're complete people.

In the majority of cases, [after many years] there are coffin fragments and very small bone fragments.

So when we say we're moving somebody from one grave to another, actually what we're talking about is a handful of fragmentary remains.

We'd prefer to bury those remains deeper in the same grave and then just use the grave again.

So in some instances, when you think "Oh, we can't do this", you're actually protecting the idea that someone was buried there when there's [often] nothing left.

It's a strange thing to think we need to protect the concept that someone must have been buried in that grave at one time.

Tim Morris, chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management

We need new legislation to allow the reuse of old, abandoned graves - turning the clock back to pre-Victorian times when it was common practice, and still is in Europe presently.

That legislation should obviously include protections for the public, the bereaved, and the previously buried remains.

The abandoned [graves] would be identified through a notification process within the legislation, where the last burial took place at least 75 years ago.

The Church of England sees that as a reasonable time period. If somebody has an interest in a particular space, then they can retain their interest, and that space wouldn't be used. So there are safeguards, it's not mandatory, it's an option.

Prof Douglas Davies, director of the Centre for Death and Life Studies at the University of Durham

The move to the reuse of graves is really good, really valuable, and a sufficient minority of people in Britain would use it as to contribute significantly to [reducing] the pressure on space.

That's one solution.

There are [also] more than 250 new woodland burial sites. This is another avenue opening up. Within 20 years [of them starting] we now have as many woodland burial sites as we have crematoria - that's remarkable.

So with this new option coming up, there might be a slight, slight decrease in the need for the use of traditional burial.

Woodland burials are a normal grave, usually buried in some ecologically friendly container, [such as] willow, usually no headstone, planted amidst trees, or in meadowland, [and] without the body being embalmed, so that it returns to nature quickly.

It has great ecological benefits because you're not embalming, and you're not cremating - cremations use a lot of energy in the process and produce ashes which are not of use to anybody in an ecological sense.

More on this story