On 8 April, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government [“MHCLG”] and the Minister for Faith, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, announced the Government’s conclusions following the review of crematoria provision and facilities. Cremations have become more and more common: in 2017 there were 467,748 cremations, representing just over three-quarters of all deaths, and each crematorium had an average of 1,607 cremations. The review into the size and provision of crematoria facilities was announced in autumn 2015 and a formal review was published alongside the 2016 March Budget.
The Government’s proposals for reform are to revise national guidance on the siting and design of crematoria – subject to further consultation – and to offer support to community groups interested in operating their own crematoria or associated facilities. Lord Bourne has written to local authorities telling them that all reasonable steps should be taken to allow the needs of those with different faiths to be met in public buildings, to encourage providers to be more transparent about their services, and to have appropriate staff training to understand different faith requirements.
The review received 153 responses of which 110 provided statistical information through the online survey. The majority of respondents were from the Hindu communities (particularly in North and West London and Leicester) but there were also representations from other faith and belief groups, and those of no faith. The self-reported religions or beliefs of the respondents were as follows:
|Proportion of respondents (%)
|Not specified/Not applicable
* the total is100% when individual percentages are shown to two decimal places.
The problems raised by respondents
The responses highlighted the following issues (in order of priority) which are considered in more detail below:
- the capacity of crematoria to accommodate large groups and problems with car parking – for example, the Jain community in London said that there were no chapel halls large enough to accommodate mourners as Jain funerals and “people have to stand outside in all weather”;
- difficulties with the design of crematoria (for example, fixed seating or catafalque – Pagan respondents had a particular problem with fixed seating which prevented people sitting in a circle – and a lack of facilities to carry out specific rituals, including separate prayer rooms, washing facilities, a viewing room to witness the committal of the coffin and proximity to running water in which to scatter ashes;
- difficulties with booking slots, slots being too short – the “half-hour problem” – and/or having to pay higher prices for weekends;
- the need for new crematoria, and/or travelling long distances to use a crematorium in specific localities;
- insensitive or inflexible iconography or other services, such as prayer books or music;
- lack of awareness or insensitivity from some crematoria staff and funeral directors of the needs of the different faith and belief groups.
Existing crematoria and construction of new facilities
Development of crematoria
The consultation explored the practicalities of existing and new crematoria and highlighted the issues associated with a building that is capable of accommodating both large numbers of mourners, but also the much smaller numbers which tend to be the norm. The Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities estimated that to accommodate groups of around 300 mourners would double construction costs, meaning that sites would not be economically viable . At the other end of the scale, one provider argued that it would be uneconomic to build crematoria that handled only around 500 cremations a year, as the construction costs would remain the same and therefore the price of cremation would be forced up .
A number of providers noted the challenges in developing new crematoria. In particular, the lack of available or affordable land; a need for sufficiently large sites to make a development economically viable; legislation and guidance which effectively restricts development in Green Belt or other countryside with strict planning controls; and public opposition and/or local authorities seeking to protect existing council-owned facilities .
The Ministry recognises that there are challenges in developing crematoria which arise from the size and scale of development that is normally required. It considers that the restrictions in the 1902 Cremation Act remain appropriate to protect neighbouring dwellings and the sanctity of memorial grounds. These prevent a crematorium from being located within 200 yards of any dwelling house (except with the consent of the owner) and 50 yards from a public highway. However, it recognizes that additional restrictions are contained in the Department of the Environment’s 1978 guidance, The Siting and Planning of Crematoria “or equivalent industry guidance”; these recommend sites with sufficient land of at least two to four hectares and in a quiet location to allow peace and tranquillity. MCHLG will therefore consult on revised guidance which could allow smaller sites to be developed, particularly if there is not an accompanying burial ground or need for space to scatter ashes. Developers will, however, still need to be sure of the economic viability of a site .
However, the Government has no plans to reduce the protections in national planning policy for the Green Belt; these ask local planning authorities to regard a new crematorium as an inappropriate development on Green Belt land, needing very special circumstances to justify planning permission. Other protections will continue to apply in other countryside and designated land such as National Parks . Furthermore, it continues to believe that local authorities are best placed to consider the need for new crematoria in their area and to consider the facts and circumstances of individual applications. It will bring this response to the attention of local authorities in areas where respondents felt a new crematorium is needed .
The crematoria providers indicated that the existing chapels were normally built to accommodate up to 100 mourners, and there was a clear problem in accommodating large groups. This impacts particularly on the Hindu, Sikh and Jain faiths, but can also affect the funerals of young people or where the person has died in tragic circumstances or is well-known in the community . However, the majority of cremation services do not exceed 100 people and therefore in most cases, the size of the chapel or funeral hall is adequate; Leicester City Council pointed out that most of the services are attended by fewer than 30 people and that larger chapels may make small gatherings feel uncomfortable .
In addition to the size of chapels, respondents highlighted increasingly longer service times, and the requirements of some faiths for mourners to wash and view the charging of the coffin into the cremator; these factors reduce service availability and are likely to have a significant impact upon the other users of the facilities . Whilst appreciating that needs will vary across the country and that in some areas demand will be low, MCHLG did not accept the argument that specific facilities are unjustified if used only several times a year. “Crematoria, like other public buildings, should be able to be utilised by all members of the community”. It also reminded local authorities of their duties under the Equality Act 2010 to avoid discrimination, and more broadly, we encourage all crematoria to work closely with their local communities in ensuring that their facilities meet specific needs .
Iconography in crematoria
A number of respondents highlighted that the particular problem that iconography – and other materials such as prayer books or music – were not provided to meet the needs of their own faith or belief. Many commented that crematorium design was still overwhelmingly Christian in ethos: for example, seating in pews . Equally, however, a number of respondents raised concerns about the removal of Christian iconography . The Government’s response suggests that is it “important to note that England has an established Church, and the status of the Church of England is protected in law”  – which is absolutely correct but ignores the point that the Church of England does not own or operate crematoria: that is what local authorities do.
The Mission and Public Affairs Council of the Archbishops’ Council told the review that it was “common for Christian celebrants to arrive and find no Christian iconography in place at all, since it will only be provided in response to a specific request. That … suggests, reasonably, that the usual iconography – a Cross etc – should routinely be in place for Church of England funerals” . The majority of crematorium providers said that they provided removable iconography to meet the needs of faith or community groups , while the National Secular Society argued that civic crematoria were religiously neutral spaces by default and that they “should provide a range of religious iconography and inform users in advance that these are available upon prior request” .
90 per cent of providers who answered the question said that they provided removable iconography , while many of them offered local faith groups the opportunity to provide their own iconography .
The review concludes that:
“Crematoria should ensure that their facilities are suitable to meet the needs of all members of the community, including those from all faiths and none. As part of this, we encourage the provision of interchangeable iconography, and will consult on revised guidance that supports this” .
Staff training and cultural/religious sensitivity
One-third of respondents said that they had experienced problems with staff awareness . A Pagan respondent said that there was no awareness of Paganism and there was an “incorrect association with Satanism” . 37 out of 48 providers said that they offered staff training on cultural awareness , while only one said that it had had any complaint about the cultural awareness of staff .
MCHLG’s conclusion on the issue is as follows:
“111. We appreciate that some of the reported concerns may relate to different interpretations of faith and belief practices and that there can be a lack of consensus on such matters, even within a single faith. Nonetheless, crematoria providers should clearly be able to demonstrate sufficient understanding of faith and other community groups’ requirements to be able to provide an appropriate service. Some of the examples of training or guidance that were referred to appeared to focus more on equality and diversity rather than be comprehensive guidance for all crematoria staff on faith and belief practices.
112. We have discussed the importance of staff training and engagement with providers and representative bodies, and will consider further working with members of the National Cremation Working Group which the Ministry of Justice has set up to provide expert input into infant cremation legislation and practice. As highlighted previously, we also encourage all crematoria to work closely with their local communities to ensure their facilities meet specific local traditions and to be transparent about the services they offer so that the families of the bereaved can make informed choices. We also support any efforts by the industry to improve the diversity of staff which may help to improve awareness and engagement with particular communities.”
One issue that remains unresolved is open-air cremation. Readers will no doubt recall the judgment in R (Ghai v Newcastle City Council & Others)  EWCA Civ 59. The judgment turned upon the meaning of “building”; and the of the Court of Appeal ruled that it was possible for the Cremation Regulations 1930 to be interpreted so as to accommodate Mr Ghai’s wish to be cremated in the open air. It was “possible to have a crematorium which has an open-air part to its structure (meaning that cultural practices can be accommodated: however, “regulatory issues such as planning permission, clean air and anti-pollution laws and obtaining any relevant licences, would still need to be considered” . Were it possible to satisfy these regulatory requirements, the cost of installing the necessary environmental controls is likely to be prohibitive in view of the relatively low numbers those would wish to have an open-air cremation.
In Scotland, the 2010 Consultation Paper on Death Certification, Burial and Cremation stated [emphasis in original]:
“106. At present home cremation is not legal, however, to prevent any dispute or legal challenge the Review Group has recommended that any future legislation should specifically state that open air/home cremation is not legal. The Scottish Government is in agreement with this recommendation and will incorporate such a clause in any future relevant legislation.”
However, neither the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016, the Cremation (Scotland) Regulations 2019, nor the associated explanatory notes/policy documents make any reference to this earlier position.
The majority of respondents who indicated their religious allegiance were from groups who experienced particular difficulties with existing crematoria. The Church of England’s concerns were represented by the Mission and Public Affairs Council of the Archbishops’ Council, the Parish of Holy Trinity Lamorbey, and through the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service. The National Secular Society also responded and its views are available here.
Nevertheless, despite the apparent disparate numbers and views of the small number of respondents, MCHLG appears to have succeeded in producing a balanced report. We await the follow-up to its recommendations with interest.
Frank Cranmer and David Pocklington
Cite as: Frank Cranmer and David Pocklington, “Government response to the consultation on crematoria” in Law & Religion UK, 15 April 2019, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2019/04/15/government-response-to-the-consultation-on-crematoria/.