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 was wrongly blamed for spreading cholera.
At Spa Fields in Clerkenwell a case in 1845 involving the exhumation of corpses, their dismemberment, and—potentially—their unsanctioned cremation caused enough shock to warrant Westminster’s intervention. As a result, large council-run cemeteries were created on the edges of cities.
The present crisis pales in comparison to the scale of Dickensian urban squalor. But it’s still worrying to find striking parallels in a time when the Thames was an open sewer.
Both private and public cemeteries are running at capacity. A study by the BBC in 2013 found that 44 per cent of local authorities believed that they would run out of space for burials in the next 20 years.
One obvious answer might be cremation. The Cremation Society of Great Britain was founded in 1874 with a motto straight from a zombie movie: “Save the land for the living.” The current vice-president is the Welsh academic Professor Douglas Davies, who is also the Director of Durham University’s Centre for Life and Death Studies.
“There are two different arguments for cremation. There’s the religious argument- that the soul as a dynamic entity needs to be freed from the body. And there’s the sanitary one.”
In 1947 only 10 per cent of British people opted for cremation. Today, that figure is 77 per cent. (If that seems high, bear in mind that on the cramped islands of Japan 99 per cent of people are cremated—so there is still potential for significant growth.)
In recent years the rate has somewhat plateaued, however, as the ecological benefits of cremation have been called into question. All crematoria are now fitted with mercury abatement machines to prevent the release of toxins from tooth fillings. Some even try to recycle the metal that is increasingly found clanking around inside us: hip replacements, bolts, metal rods, plates.
“We’re now looking at water cremation as an alternative—the dissolving of bodies in a high-pressure alkaline solution,” says Professor Davies. “In the United States apparently it’s roughly the same cost as cremation, and the carbon footprint is about 14 times smaller.”
Water cremation is an intriguing possibility. But what the cremation argument does not account for is the UK’s increasing diversity. Cremation, be it of the incendiary or the liquid variety, is simply not compatible with Jewish, Muslim or Orthodox belief.
Take, for example, the Turkish Cypriot community that respectfully tilt their dead to face Mecca in Tottenham Park Cemetery. For them, and many others, cremation will not rub. Liverpool City Council had to spend £300,000 last year on expanding its Islamic burial space after reports suggested the city could soon run out of room to inter Muslims.
At this time of year, the City of London Cemetery—across town in Ilford—is blanketed by rotting leaves. It’s been in operation since 1856. The ground is knobbled with memory. A white earless cat called Pilchard sits at the entrance.
Public cemeteries in London are now excused from the 1857 law that prohibits the disturbance of human remains. Most boroughs have been reluctant to enact this privilege, that allows them to reuse graves that are more than 75 years old. But the City of London has been something of a pioneer. Three out of five burials here now involve recycled ground.
Inside the grounds, a white sign is taped to a plain tree: “It is intended that the rights of burial shall be extinguished and memorials removed on 31st December 2018, after which work to reuse and increase the space for burials in the graves will be undertaken.”
Below are listed the graves that will be disturbed. The public are encouraged to raise any specific objections.
The popularity of burial reuse in the City of London Cemetery can be explained by cost effectiveness—you get more bang for your buck. Neoclassical headstones dignified by the patina of moss are simply turned around when a grave is reused, preserving the history of the original inhabitant whilst also allowing the new occupant to be commemorated with their own inscription. The graves are dug deep. Where mismanagement appears to have reigned at Tottenham Park Cemetery, the City of London thinks it has a long-term solution that involves the public.
“Reusing old graves—that is an issue,” says Professor Davies. “Our research shows that people would be prepared to use them after a long period.”
It’s worth treading carefully. In Ilford in December, freezing fog descends on the cemetery. A man on all fours weeds the grave of a loved one. Death is a taboo subject. But it ought to be addressed now, before it starts to push itself up out of the ground.