Cemetery boss urges families to dig up their dead

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GRIEVING RELATIVES have been invited to dig up their dead to make way for a housing development in a row that has lined up almost an entire city against a cemetery owner. Families have been told not to visit graves and threatened with trespass if they attempt to lay flowers on them.

The dispute over ownership of Arnos Vale cemetery, a grandiose Victorian cemetery in Bristol, has dragged on for 11 years. It was bought by Tony Towner in 1987, reportedly for pounds 1, and one of the new owner's first acts was to announce at a public meeting that he planned to build 400 houses on a seven-acre section of the cemetery.

An uneasy stand-off has existed between Mr Towner and relatives ever since. Last December, Mr Towner's company, the Bristol General Cemetery Company, issued relatives with an exhumation notice in which he outlined the increasing financial burden of running the cemetery and suggested families consider removing the remains of their relatives.

In March, Mr Towner abruptly announced he could no longer afford to keep the cemetery open. But when he turned up to lock the gates he was met by 200 people and was forced to leave under police escort, saying that, if he could not close the cemetery, he would leave it open 24 hours a day.

At this point, the Friends of Arnos Vale, known locally as Arnos Army, stepped in. Housed in a caravan outside the main entrance, they have taken over its maintenance and security and gathered almost 20,000 signatures for a petition against its closure.

Mr Towner then sought to evict the Friends, accusing them of trespass, mob rule and acting as vigilantes. But a court ruled it would be wrong to evict campaigners because it would mean banning grieving relatives.

This news was welcomed as far away as the Indian High Commission, which each year assists a pilgrimage to the tomb of Rammohun Roy, the progressive Indian reformer.

Two years ago the pilgrimage was refused entry and Mr Towner was "a little adamant", according to Indra Nath Chowdhuri, of the Commission's cultural wing.

Although no plans for housing have been submitted to Bristol City Council, feelings have run high in the local community. "It's very contentious and we have to find a way of acquiring the site and handing it over to a trust," said a spokesman for the council, which has commissioned a feasibility study for the cemetery's future.

Mr Towner, who was not available for comment, has said the overgrown cemetery is too dangerous for relatives to visit and that a previous voluntary management scheme had not worked.

The cemetery, home to 50,000 graves that sprawl over 47 acres, was consecrated in 1840. Although it has 15 listed buildings, today it is overgrown and many tombs are hidden beneath thick blankets of brambles, Japanese knotweed and ivy. An inspection by Bristol City Council last month found many of the listed monuments in a desperate state.

The Victorian Society has become closely involved in the dispute. "The physical beauty of the buildings is typical of their time and they are good examples of a period of great social change. It would be a criminal waste to lose them," said local spokesman Quentin Alder. "Mr Towner seems to have lost sight of the fact this is a cemetery and not just a business."

Les Owen, former chairman of the Friends, cannot reach his family graves because of a barrier of nettles. "My family plot is in the undergrowth so the nearest I can get is to stand on the path and look across," he said.

Families hope plans to create a Trust to run the cemetery along the lines of its counterpart, Highgate cemetery in London, could finally resolve matters. "I don't think it has a future as a working cemetery, though there have been a handful of burials since March," said Mr Owen. "Its future really lies as a place of remembrance in its original state."

Joyce Smith, Secretary of the Friends of Arnos Vale, said: "My father was only buried there for five years before Mr Towner said he had aspirations to remove him and build property. But it has become something more - it's a matter of principle."