As Anhui province in China introduces a ban on burials, should we all take stock of the impact of cemeteries on our countryside?
Anhui authorities say cemeteries are taking up too much space, so they have been closed from today and all bodies must be cremated. This has been distressing for the elderly in rural areas, some of whom have allegedly committed suicide to ensure that they can be buried prior to the deadline.
A BBC survey of local authorities last year found that burial spaces could run out in England in 20 years, with particular pressure on burial grounds in London and larger cities.
Proposed solutions include the improved use and design of mausolea, effectively allowing multi-storey use of plots in new or existing cemeteries; and an increase in cremation, though this already accounts for almost 75% of deaths in the UK.
In some regions of the UK green burial sites are easing the pressure on consecrated burial grounds. Many are located in woodland or wild areas and since the late 1990’s more than 250 such grounds have opened. However, this does not assist those who live in cities and wish their loved ones to be buried nearby.
Some argue that what is needed in this country is a cultural shift. Many Europeans expect to rent their burial plot for a fixed period, after which the land may be used for re-burial unless a further fee is paid. Not only does this mean that ‘forgotten’ graves are effectively recycled once the immediate need for a burial spot and a physical focus for grief have subsided, but the cemeteries also have a flow of funds to enable proper maintenance of the site.
Graves were often re-used, it seems, until the Victorians introduced the Burial Act in 1857, making it illegal to disturb a grave. In 2007 London burial authorities were granted permission, in specific circumstances, to disturb graves older than 75 years to deepen them and so enable further burials to take place. This followed a Home Office consultation in 2004 which sought views, inter alia, on the re-use of graves. Harriet Harman subsequently announced “the Government are now satisfied that it would be right to enable graves to be re-used”. But since then there has been no Government action to take this forward, and in 2012 they acknowledged that they intended only to keep the situation under review.
So will cremation and green burials free up enough space for those who still seek a traditional burial? The authorities in Anhui are enforcing their burial ban by destroying thousands of coffins, many of them seized from the homes of the elderly. Let’s hope the British Government acts before the situation reaches such a desperate point.
Daily Mail Report
Commons Library Standards Note and Report published 15 May 2014.