Letter: Difficult decisions about a grave problem

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The Independent Online
Sir: I write concerning your article 'Historic cemetery ravaged by council' (3 November). Lambeth Council fully recognises the architectural and historical significance of West Norwood cemetery. However, it is also a working cemetery, and the council has to achieve a balance between conflicting demands. While the heritage lobby campaigns, rightly, for the preservation of the past, the council must also consider the needs of today's Lambeth residents. Many people wish to be buried or have a memorial in a place where, in life, they have felt a connection; and for mourners, too, a cemetery which is accessible makes an important contribution toward the process of grieving and healing.

Therefore, the council must provide local burial spaces, and as West Norwood is the only cemetery we own in the borough, and as it has finite space, we need to consider how to make the best use of it. This involves the necessity of clearance, from time to time, of some of the older grave 'sets'. Some of these are of historical or architectural significance; some are not; with others the significance is debatable. Are the memorials of the socially prominent, or those wealthy enough to engage architects to design unusual or attractive monuments, more worthy of preservation than the simple tablet of an artisan or manual worker? Should we discriminate when it comes to preserving the past and, if so, on what criteria?

Whatever the case, the council makes every effort to trace living relatives and seek their views before removing any memorial. The views of English Heritage and other conservation groups are also taken into account. In the end, a decision has to be made, and the council's officers have done their best to achieve a solution acceptable to as many people as possible.

It is untrue that the council has received 'hundreds of complaints' about this matter. The committee I chair has drafted a long-term plan for the future management of the cemetery. This has been the subject of detailed and careful consultation with the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery. I am dismayed that the Friends claim the council 'has behaved throughout in a totally cavalier fashion': I do not believe this claim is consistent with the facts.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that issues surrounding death and bereavement are of an extremely sensitive nature, they are rarely publicly debated. They need to be, for most councils across the country face similar difficult decisions over the management of burial spaces.

Yours sincerely,

JANET CROOK

Chair, Environmental

Services Committee

London Borough of Lambeth

4 November

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