Burial Space

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:33 pm on 5th September 2012.

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Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 7:33 pm, 5th September 2012

I absolutely agree with everything that the hon. Lady said. She will be delighted to know that the wonderful Library briefing on this issue specifically told me about those points.

Evidence suggests that the problem is not just restricted to large metropolitan areas such as London. In rural locations, for example, there are problems with financing the purchase of new land for burial and of secure and appropriate land at a reasonable distance from the communities. I know that the hon. Lady raised the issue in the House in 2007, but it has obviously not been solved. In 2011, the Church in Wales claimed that two thirds of its 1,000 burial grounds would be full in 10 years and that it was short of funds to maintain graves. It added that it could not afford to extend or open new churchyards. It is clear that this is a major issue.

Over the past decade, Governments have begun to recognise that this is a problem, beginning in 2001 with the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee’s inquiries into cemeteries. There was also a Home Office report in 2004, but I think that there has been inactivity with regard to responding positively to the problems.

There are knock-on effects on the cost to the population. Foremost among these is the narrowing of affordable burying options. There is often no space available in the local cemetery and the family may be forced to choose a burial plot that is some distance away from where the deceased actually lived. This can be emotionally distressing and geographically challenging, with the deceased losing any links to the local area and the family having to travel some distance to visit the grave. There is an economic impact on the costs to local authorities, and I have already mentioned issues relating to the Muslim and Jewish communities.

The House should also consider the impact of historic cemeteries. We have many such cemeteries in the United Kingdom, many of which have become full and are often neglected, even though they may well contain wonderful buildings, artefacts and landscapes of great importance and heritage. It is estimated that there are approximately 3,500 pre-1914 historic cemeteries in the UK, all of which could be at risk because of lack of burial space. For example, in the London borough of Newham, where I was born and where the Olympics were staged, 60% of public open space is made up of cemetery land given over to cemeteries.

I will end with the potential solutions. The reuse of graves is a very controversial suggestion, but some people favour it. It is not a new idea—it has been under consideration for some time. I remember there being a bit of a round-the-houses about it in 1994. It is called the lift and deepen method, whereby graves are excavated to their deepest depths and all remains placed in a casket and reinterred at the bottom of the grave. The research team involved interviewed 1,603 members of the public and the majority thought that it was a good idea, but I have my own views on it. The reuse of graves older than 75 years is allowed in London under the London Local Authorities Act 2007, but I say again that it is a controversial activity. I believe that Southwark council has unveiled plans recently to tackle lack of burial space in the borough by reusing graves. If approved, such action would free up 1,600 burial plots by 2015 and more than 5,000 by 2028.

I turn now to the subject to which Jim Shannon alluded in his intervention—Italian-style mausoleums. I believe that this is a possible solution. I have been to see them in America and other countries and think that, done well, they are both respectful and tasteful. They are particularly prominent in southern European countries such as, obviously, Italy. The mausoleums allow for a maximum number of entombments in a minimum amount of space. Not only do they use space effectively in burial grounds, but they provide the opportunity to be interned alongside loved ones. Such mausoleums come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and a variety of materials can be used. They are a possible solution and I think that we should learn from best practice in Northern Ireland.

Green burials are another solution to consider and provide environmental benefits. The natural process is sped up, freeing up space more quickly. There is no bulky headstone. Instead, the burial register can be anything from a shrub or tree to an electronic chip, which helps keep the space required to an absolute minimum. The coffins are made of biodegradable cardboard or papier-mâché, thus freeing up space underground at a faster rate. Finally, the graveyard when full can be turned into a nature reserve or picnic site. Many people have no problem with that. It would not be my choice, but I am probably in a tiny minority. The first green burial site was opened in Carlisle in 1993 and there are now more than 200 across the United Kingdom. A further benefit of the method is the low cost, with cardboard coffins costing as little as £60.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister what the Government’s views are on adopting the measures that I have mentioned. Such new methods are becoming more widespread and I wonder whether the Government’s position on them has altered since the debate on the matter some years ago. I am aware that the situation is being kept under review, but then everything seems to be under review. It would be nice if, rather than reviewing things, we could have a bit of activity. If we do nothing, people will be left with less choice, further increasing the case for cremation to be the solution that is offered to everyone, and those who still opt for burial, either out of choice or due to religious conviction, are likely to be faced with considerable costs, increasing the likelihood that burials will occur outside the local area. We should buck our cultural trend and face up to the treatment of death. Other than those who, tragically, commit suicide, none of us know when we will die. The way in which we say goodbye to a loved one should be treated with the greatest possible dignity.