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Delays cause cremations crisis

A recent and unexplained surge in the death rate is causing three-week delays in cremations in parts of South East England, particularly in Kent.

While there is generally an increase in the death rate during the winter months, one undertaker said the high death rate "was quite extraordinary and impossible to explain".

The delays are particularly marked in Kent where some people who died over Christmas will not be cremated until next week. Dominic Maguire, a spokesman for the National Association of Funeral Directors, said that the difficulties "tend to happen most years" but in different places around the country. Last year, he said, there were long backlogs in Glasgow in the winter because of a flu outbreak, but the current problem is not a result of an epidemic.

The Independent contacted several funeral directors in Kent and found that the average delay was two weeks. While one funeral director mentioned the flu, most were unable to explain the increase in business. John Weir, who runs the eponymous family undertakers in the Medway towns, said: "At one of the local crematoria, you couldn't get a place until 28 January. There is no doubt that funeral directors and crematoria across Kent and in parts of south London are very busy." He said there was no pattern to the deaths, with flu only having a marginal impact.

Another funeral director, in Maidstone, said: "It's been awful this past week. People are having to take slots at 9.30 in the morning, or four in the afternoon, which is awful for them." There are also backlogs of bodies in Surrey and parts of south London and the recent cold weather is likely to further exacerbate the problem.

Mr Maguire said that the number of slots in crematoria was limited and was tailored towards an average number of deaths. Any unexpected increase led to delays. "We are not unduly concerned, although we sympathise with the relatives who want to get on with their lives," he said.

Fortunately, modern equipment, such as digging machines, ensure that people can be buried despite the cold weather, but Mr Weir says there is very little call for burial these days, with only about 15 per cent of bodies being buried rather than cremated.

t The re-use of old graves is proposed today in a report which claims burial space in London could run out in nine years unless urgent action is taken.

In some areas of the capital there is already no room and the dead have to buried in other boroughs. The problem is particularly acute in the City of London, Hackney, Islington, Lewisham, Kensington and Chelsea and Tower Hamlets. Even in the outer suburbs, some boroughs will run out of space by 2016.

And the report, commissioned by the London Planning Advisory Committee, the City of London Corporation and the Confederation of Burial Authorities, says the situation is most acute for Muslims, for whom only five years of grave space is left in inner London.

By contrast Roman Catholics and Jews, because of provision by their religious organisations, have no real problems.