There’s been concern for some time that the UK might be on the verge of running out of burial space, particularly in large cities like London. A combination of population growth, existing cemeteries which are at or nearing capacity, the custom in the UK (unlike some of our continental neighbours) that graves are considered to be ‘occupied’ in perpetuity and development pressure are at the root of the problem. A number of solutions have put forward, from a variety of groups, ranging from the sensitive and pragmatic to the surprising and opportunistic.
The Greater London Authority has been aware of the issue for some time, first commissioning research into burial provision in 1997, before repeating the study in 2010. The Cemeteries Research Group of York University carried out the assessment and made a series of proposals. It is already customary in may London boroughs to stack graves 3 or 4 deep to use the available land as efficiently as possible. Further potential solutions included the re-use of existing graves, the creation of above-ground mausolea (although it was noted that these would also have to be re-used periodically), or encouraging greater use of cremation. With the UK already having one of the highest rates of cremation in the world , this last option seemed likely to be relatively ineffectual.
Others however, saw opportunity. Noting on its blog that burial plots have increased in price by over three times more than the property market over the last ten years, Cemetery Invest is busy developing a new cemetery at Farnham Park in Surrey. Plots are for sale to investors starting at around £3,900 and they suggest that it is possible to achieve ‘40% projected growth from the only UK investment with unlimited and guaranteed demand.’ The introductory video on their website is well-worth a watch in full, as the presenter breathlessly describes the burial plots as an ‘exciting new asset class’ where ‘even in the worst recession ever seen, burial plots are continuing to increase in price and are showing no sign of slowing down.’
They’re not the only ones to see things this way. Back in 2001, a couple in North Wales had been trying to develop the 3 acre plot next to their house for years. After numerous rejected planning applications for the site, proposing everything from a caravan park to a fish farm, they finally lighted on the idea of a cemetery. The planners were initially surprised, but went on to grant permission. The couple are no looking for further investment to support the construction of the necessary access roads, parking and planting.
Time for the Institute of Cremation and Cemetery Management to sound a note of caution. In the same article , the Institute’s director points out that a similar ‘gold rush’ has happened before, in the mid 19th century and for the investors involved, it did not yield the expected returns. The cost of the plot may initially appear high, but it reflects the cost of the maintenance of the cemetery. It is for this reason that these spaces are usually managed by municipalities or by not for profit groups.
On the other hand, for those for whom managing and maintaining land is already part of the job, the creation of burial sites might prove a more realistic option. Farmers’ Weekly offered a range of guidance to their readers, much of it drawing on the work of the Natural Death Centre . They describe the applicable planning requirements for establishing a burial ground, before going on to discuss the later management of the land. Maintaining the site as woodland is a common option, although it can also be returned to pasture. Farmers’ Weekly saw fit to warn explicitly that the field should not later be ploughed.
The surprising thing is how little regulation there is related to new cemeteries or burial grounds. Contamination of water courses must be avoided and access to the site must be adequate for the anticipated number of visitors and must be maintained in the long term to allow visits to the graves by friends and family. Beyond this, there are few requirements, even for planning permission for change of use of the site, if the cemetery remains within certain limits. Several councils, amongst them East Cheshire , advise that a ‘limited number’ of family and friends can be buried on a plot of land that you own (although they also point out that you should seek the landowner’s permission if you don’t own the land). The Ministry of Environment places more conservative limit of two people, although this has yet to be tested in court. Before burial, a certificate of burial must be provided for the deceased and a record must be kept of exactly where the grave(s) are.
It has long been common for families with large land estates to have a mausoleum or small cemetery on their land. In fact, however, the ability to create burial plots on your own land isn’t limited to estates of a certain size, meaning that it does indeed extend to the garden of your house. East Cheshire council offers this guidance , though weirdly, the council comments first on the land value implications – it has been suggested that having a grave in your garden could cause a drop of up to 20% in the value of the house, although they point out that a more likely consequence would be to deter buyers altogether. No further permissions are required. Neighbours may object, but they seem to have very few legal grounds on which to do so.
Perhaps what is most striking about the minimal amount of regulation is the extent to which our approach to architecture and urbanism related to death is shaped by social and cultural norms and how relatively little control is exercised over it by institutions and government authorities. Also, where customs around death might seem very fixed, it is surprising to see how mutable they have proved to be in the face of land scarcity, public health policy changes and the market, amongst other factors. As London develops a taste for tall buildings and as its existing cemeteries gradually fill, perhaps the case of Hong Kong could suggest some interesting possibilities.