'Double-decker' graves planned for packed cemeteries

Human remains could be dug up and reburied at a greater depth to free more space in overcrowded cemeteries, the Government said yesterday.

The idea of "doubler-decker" graves - with new coffins laid on top of older bodies - was raised by the Home Office as a way of tackling a looming burial crisis. With more than 150,000 burials every year, pressure is growing on the network of Victorian cemeteries. Some in inner London have been forced to close their gates, and many municipal burial grounds nationwide are nearly full.

The Government admitted yesterday that, without immediate action, the country will soon face serious problems in burying its dead. Launching a consultation document on burial practices, Paul Goggins, a Home Office minister, acknowledged that any move to reuse graves was likely to run into strong resistance, particularly on religious grounds.

Remains would be exhumed and re-interred in a small casket in the so-called "lift and deepen" method, and buried up to three metres deep. Permission to dig them up would only be given if there were no objections from descendants of the dead, if they could be tracked down, and is likely to be limited to remains more than 100 years old. The names of the newly buried could be added to the existing tombstones or new, smaller plaques could be put on the redug graves.

A pilot scheme at City of London Cemetery has identified 188 graves older than 75 years that could be removed. They have been marked with black and yellow tags reading: "Notice: This memorial has been identified for possible reclamation."

People at the 150-year-old cemetery yesterday were uneasy at the thought of reusing graves. Claire Strickland, 36, whose sister and grandmother were both cremated at the ground, said: "I do think it makes sense. There is a logic to what they're proposing because, if you just look around, you can see that there isn't enough room.'' But she added: "At the same time, there is something quite disturbing about the idea."

The Government said that reusing graves would relieve pressure on space and allow more people to be buried near the communities in which they lived. It would also provide extra income for cemeteries starved of cash. Other options could be to re-inter the remains in an ossuary - a burial box - at another site, or to cremate them.

Although reusing old graves is commonplace in many countries, the Government may need to change the law to allow it in Britain, particularly when ancient plots have been purchased in perpetuity.

Most of the country's cemeteries were developed in the Victorian era, as cities and towns expanded rapidly during the Industrial Revolution. The laws controlling them, and churchyards, date from that time and were described by the Government yesterday as inconsistent, unclear and ineffective.

The Home Office is to survey all 25,000 burial grounds in England and Wales this year in an attempt to look at space shortages and other problems. Mr Goggins admitted that many cemeteries were run down and intimidating, and said ministers were also looking at whether there needs to be a inspectorate to set standards and ensure burial grounds comply with legislation.

Mr Goggins said: "The question is whether we should have an inspectorate and should we build on the existing limited powers of inspection. These are sometimes quite unsafe places and unpleasant places for people to visit. They are not well lit and can sometimes attract anti-social behaviour."

Anne Viney, the chief executive of the charity Cruse Bereavement Care, said: "The proposed changes should help annul any fears that bereaved people may have over potentially difficult issues, such as the possible reuse of cemeteries."

Julie Rugg, of the Cemetery Research Group at York University, said: "We are living on borrowed time. The service delivered to people is getting worse and worse, with higher burial fees and people having to travel further to visit graves."

The moves come nearly three years after MPs recommended that recycling long-forgotten graves was the only way to save historic cemeteries from decline.

They also warned that failure to act could deny people the choice to opt for burial over cremation as space runs short.

DEATH BY NUMBERS

*There are more than 600,000 deaths in the United Kingdom each year

*About 72 per cent of those who die are cremated and most of the rest buried. Other options include eco-friendly woodland burials or burial at sea

*The charges of burial authorities vary from £49 to £1,738, with the most expensive being in London

*The charge for erecting a memorial varies from £10 in St Helier, Jersey, to £168 in the London borough of Sutton

*Between 5,000 and 10,000 cemeteries are currently in operation. Most are owned by district, town and parish councils and the London boroughs

*Many were built between 1850 and 1880, and their average size is 10 acres

*Each year, the Home Office allows about 900 exhumations at a family's request and issues about 40 licences to remove or disturb graves to make way for building projects

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