Already-crowded graveyards are facing a crisis. Could re-using old graves be the answer?by George Grylls / December 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Tunay Hussein had long been suspicious of overcrowding in Tottenham Park Cemetery. The graves were being squashed closer together. The paths were getting thinner and thinner.
Earlier this year, her worst fears were apparently confirmed: “On one occasion, I went down to collect a bone that had been reported. Between the graves I found what looked to me like a human skeleton. A jaw with teeth in. A human skull. It was very distressing.”
The Turkish Cypriot community in this part of North London had long been mobilised to combat the cemetery’s perceived shortcomings. (It helped that Hussein’s cousin was the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Hussein-Ece.) And the combined weight of the Tottenham Park Cemetery Action Group conspired to force some answers out of the private company that owned the land. What exactly were the grisly discoveries? How had it got to this stage?
Tottenham Park Cemetery Ltd was cagey. They disagreed that all the bones had been found on the company’s land. They maintained that any bones that had been discovered belonged to animals. Police forensics, however, were inclined to disagree.
In November, matters in Tottenham came to a head. A mysterious notice appeared on the gates of the graveyard, informing relatives that Tottenham Park Cemetery Ltd had gone into administration. And in a notable coincidence of timing, after months of sustained pressure, the Ministry of Justice announced two weeks later that there would be an official inspection.
“We suspect the cemetery is probably full,” says Hussein, whose parents are buried there along with numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. “It’s been going since 1912.”
This macabre tale, which sounds like it belongs to the eerie nineteenth-century world of Robert Louis Stevenson or Charles Dickens rather than twenty-first century London, has drawn attention to a problem that British society has been all too reticent to address: the increasing saturation of our cemeteries.
Such a crisis is not without precedent, and the cemeteries that surround our towns and cities are a direct result of the 1850 Act of Metropolitan Interment and its 1852 amendment. As the population of Victorian London burgeoned, small, privately-owned burial grounds overflowed with the bodies of Londoners desperate to avoid the ignominy of a pauper’s funeral. The miasma that seeped from decomposing cadavers…