Shortage of burial space? Surprise, surprise!

Following a survey of local authorities in England, the BBC suggested that Burial space in England ‘could run out in 20 years’. BBC Local Radio had approached 699 local authorities, 358 of which responded and it was reported that of these, 25% said that they would have no burial space in 10 years’ time, and 44% indicated that they could only accommodate burials for the next 20 years.  A full list of the responses is given in the report, here for parish town councils and here for unitary authorities.  The results indicated that areas such as Tandridge district council in the South East, which has already run out of space, and Bicester which is due to experience problems as it doubles in size over the next 10 years with the development of 12,000 houses.

Ardington 02Dr Julie Rugg of the Cemetery Research Group at the University of York’s agreed that the situation was “desperate” and called on the government to intervene, stating that the findings of the survey suggested “for the first time how desperate the problem is right across the country”, not just in London or the larger towns.  She is quoted as saying “I don’t know how much more evidence there needs to be on the table before the Ministry of Justice appreciates that this is a crisis.”


The Church of England controlled most of the burial grounds until the early 19th century, when statutory legislation was introduced to permit private firms and burial boards to develop new sites to meet the growing demand for space.  However, the authors of the report “Cemeteries and their management” undertaken for the Ministry of Justice in 2004, suggest that local authority and privately-run cemeteries have traditionally been operated on a non-sustainable model, relying upon the income from current burial to fund the maintenance of their assets, including the closed cemeteries that generate no income.

Successive governments have been aware of the problem, but have been unwilling to take action on this sensitive issue and its solution through the reuse of graves [1] a debate that dates back to 1994.  In 2001, a report of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee noted, [para. 127],

“is the almost universal view of those in the burial industry that reuse is the only long-term solution not only to the lack of burial space, but also to the long-term financial viability of cemeteries. If the public are to continue to have access to affordable, accessible burial in cemeteries fit for the needs of the bereaved, there appears to be no alternative to grave reuse. … For the reasons stated above, and assuming that the necessary safeguards are included, we are ourselves of the opinion that legislation should be introduced allowing burial to take place in reused graves.”

and concluded, [para. 129]

“ . . . . we were taken aback by the sheer magnitude of the problems facing our cemeteries.  The almost complete failure on the part of public authorities to take the action necessary to address those problems – from the Home Office’s decision not to issue the consultation paper on the reuse of graves to local authorities’ refusal to treat this essential service with the seriousness which it deserves – is inexcusable. We trust that, now Ministerial minds have been focussed on the subject of cemetery services, this situation will begin to change.”

Surveys were undertaken in 2004 [2] and 2007 [3], and a consultation in 2004 [4],STE_2420(2) but in view of the sensitive nature of the solution, and agreement on the re-use of graves was reached  ‘in principle’ in 2007 [5].  Although the religious beliefs of Jews and Moslems discourage the disturbance of remains and favour one burial per plot, these and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who also have strong objections, represent only a small fraction of the total burials.  Although the majority of respondees to the Home Office/DCA Consultation on the re-use of graves were in favour of such action, ‘a substantial minority’ indicated a strong aversion, especially those from the ‘general public’.

The HC Library Standard Note,Reuse of Graves“, published in 2012, catalogued the developments over the previous 11 years and the concluding sectionWhat does the present [Coalition] Government intend to do?” suggested that little was likely to change.


As L&RUK has no specific statistical expertise, we will not attempt to analyse the recent BBC data, other than to note it appears as though the median values [6] of parish town council and unitary authority data are broadly similar to the earlier government information.  Thus with no modifications in burial practice, the available space in these cemeteries is set to run out in about 22 years’ time.  Nevertheless, as the BBC headline indicated, at local level the situation is considerably more pressing.

However, there are three aspects from the 2004 survey that need to be taken into consideration: the BBC information does not include CofE and CiW churchyards, which although smaller than municipal cemeteries are more numerous, and at that time accounted for 31% of the estimated total area usable for burials [7];  CofE and CiW churchyards contain a significant number of graves that are over 100 years old; and, even if  a policy of grave re-use were to be introduced, it would not increase significantly the capacity available in the long-term: Tables 7 and 8 of the 2004 report indicate that such a policy would increase the median period of operation by 15 years for local authorities’ burial grounds, and by 20 years in the case of the CofE/CiW.

The re-use of graves is now beginning to be practised in London under the provisions of the 2007 Act: about 700 graves that are at least 75 years old are reported to have been re-used, or ‘shared’ in the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium in east London; the borough of Enfield has recently started the practice; Southwark and Westminster are considering it.  However although Harriet Harman’s Ministerial Statement in the Annex to the 2007 Report promised “to introduce measures which, using powers available under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, will allow local authorities to re-use graves in their cemeteries, if they wish,” [emphasis added], no such general provision has been forthcoming.  Successive minister have continued to view this as “a local problem for local people”, rather than an urgent local problem that requires action or at least direction/coordination at a national level.

With regard to the approach of the Church of England to the re-use of graves, it will be apparent from reports in this blog of recent consistory court judgements, that faculties have been granted for “lifting and deepening”, Re West Norwood Cemetery [2012] Southwark Const Ct Philip Petchey Ch.[8],  and the courts are supportive of interment in family grave, Re Ivy Gertrude Brisbane deceased [2013] Lincoln Const Ct, Mark Bishop Ch. –  the “use of family graves are to be encouraged because they both express family unity and they are environmentally friendly in demonstrating an economical use of the land for burials”, [para. 9.5] –  but not where the movement of remains will not lead to any saving of space [in this case movement of ashes from one family grave to another], [para. 9.5.1].

Other practical issues have been examined by the Oxford Diocese which identifies: the movement of memorials, [see also the recent case Re St Thomas Kilnhurst [2013] Sheffield Cons Ct (David McClean Ch)]; faculties that have been granted reserving burial space and the diocese policy to limit this period to 25 years, rather than 100 years formerly; and the associated health & safety/aesthetic issues of the disturbance of remains during “lifting and deepening”.

However, as if to emphasize the public’s apparent total disinterest in the issue, on Wednesday this week, (2 October 2013) the e-petition, Recycling of Graves, will close after one year having attracted, to date, only 3 signatures.

David Pocklington

[1] Other solutions considered included: above-ground burial in mausolea, (see lower photograph of a columbarium in Volterra, Italy); more intensive use of existing space; promotion of cremation.

[2] B Wilson and J Robson Cemeteries and their Management, (Home Office On-Line Report 1/04), 2004].

[3] Ministry of Justice, “Burial Law and Policy in the 21st Century The Way Forward”, [2007],

[4] Home Office Consultation ‘Burial Law and Policy in the 21st Century: The Need for a Sensitive and Sustainable Approach’, June 2004.

[5] HC Deb 5 June 2007 cc 11-12 WS.

[6] The mean is the arithmetic average of a set of numbers, or distribution.  However, the median is the numeric value separating the higher half of a sample, a population, or a probability distribution, from the lower half. Whereas the mean is used for normal distributions, the median is generally used for skewed distributions.

[7] The 2004 report showed that the estimated total area usable for burials, excluding grave reuse, were 2447 Ha in the case of the CofE and CiW, and 5378 Ha for Local Authorities.

[8] A faculty was granted for the exhumation and re-interment in the same grave at a lower depth, in order to make room for further burials.

Updated 26 December 2022 at 14:09. The latest version of the Briefing Note SN 04060 Reuse of Graves was issued on 6 June 2017.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Shortage of burial space? Surprise, surprise!" in Law & Religion UK, 30 September 2013,

7 thoughts on “Shortage of burial space? Surprise, surprise!

  1. This is a fascinating discussion for someone who grew up in Denmark. Ordinary Danish graves (not Jewish or Muslim) are leased on renewable 25 year leases and will eventually be re-used if the lease is not renewed by the family. This is long-standing practice and is completely accepted by most people. I have in fact never met anyone who thought that this policy of re-use was problematic. Most Danes seem to think that if a family does not renew the lease then their connection to the buried person is weakened to such an extent that it is acceptable to re-use the grave. Any remains removed as part of the re-use process are treated with dignity and re-interred in the cemetery(or cremated and re-interred).

  2. Whilst at University as part of a study of land-use in the London greenbelt, I proposed the creation of circular woodland burial site following the line of the M25. I calculated that a strip could be planted which would be completed in 80-100years, at which point the trees could be harvested and the strip re-used. This burial park would of course be developed with associated infrastructure – buildings and transport links i.e. new railway stations and exits from the M25. The new green ring around London would be promoted as a beautiful and tranquil destination and could include such things as weekend cottages built as examples of low impact living e.g earth sheltered, renewable service systems etc. And so on….. Perhaps the time has come: please contact me if you’d like to support the further development and promotion of this idea.

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