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Harley Investments - Burial Plot Shortage in the UK

Looking at the crisis the UK is facing countrywide, the shortage of burial plots.

Harley Investments - Burial Plot Shortage in the UK
Birmingham, United Kingdom, March 21, 2017 --( The issue of when, where and how the body is dealt with after a person’s death is something which most of us, if we’re being honest, would probably prefer to avoid. Like writing a will or sorting out organ donation, it’s the sort of reminder of mortality which people feel uncomfortable thinking or even talking about. The damaging side effects of this kind of reticence are many, from the problems caused when people die without making a will to the shortage of organs available for transplants, but a perhaps more surprising issue, and one which is becoming increasingly urgent, is the growing shortage of space for people who wish to be buried when they die.

Although the reticence mentioned above is something which generally applies on a personal level, there also seems to have been a reluctance to face up to this issue on the part of successive governments. As long ago as 2007, the then Labour government pledged to introduce measures allowing local authorities in England and Wales to re-use graves within their cemeteries, but the idea was quietly shelved, perhaps due to a fear of a public backlash, and the situation has officially been ‘under review’ ever since.

The exact scale of the problem is slightly tricky to quantify, as cemeteries are under the control of different local authorities across England and Wales, as well as churches and other bodies, but a BBC survey carried out in 2013 uncovered some shocking statistics. Of the 699 local authorities approached by the BBC, 358 responded to the survey, and over half stated that they would be running out of space for any more burials in less than a decade. In some areas, the problem was even more acute, with areas such as Gosport, Mole Valley, Crawley and Rother stating that they only had five years’ worth of capacity left. Some places, such as the south east district council of Tandridge, claimed that they had already run out of space.

There are several possible solutions to the problem, of which the most obvious is to encourage people to opt for cremation over burial. In recent years, however, the rate at which people opt for cremation over burial has levelled off at 75%, and a parliamentary research publication released in May 2015 included an estimate, based on Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures, which predicted that there would be as many as 680,000 burials in the period between 2015 and 2020. One of the factors which count against any wider take up of the option of cremation is that certain religions insist on the deceased being buried. Traditionally, for example, those of the Roman Catholic faith would insist on burial rather than cremation and, although this has been relaxed somewhat over the years, many Catholics still opt for burial, as do all Orthodox Jews, Muslims, members of the Baha’i Faith, and the majority of Mormons. To put this into perspective, the Census of 2011 recorded that there were 2,706,066 Muslims in the UK and 263,346 members of the Jewish faith. As far as the latter figure is concerned, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research stated that the voluntary nature of the Census question on faith meant that this was likely to be an understatement, with the actual figure estimated at 284,000. A 2013 survey carried out by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that 16% of this population identifies itself as ‘orthodox’. Clearly, then, the demand for burial spaces is unlikely to recede at all in the immediate future, and the shortage will have to be addressed directly.

This fact was recognised as long ago as 2010, when the Greater London Authority commissioned the Cemetery Research Group of the University of York to carry out an audit of burial provision in the capital. Although the shortage is a UK wide problem it is particularly acute in bigger cities such as London, and the finished report opens by noting that a 1997 survey had found that inner London only had an estimated nine years’ worth of provision left, with the surrounding boroughs varying between those which were predicting space would run out entirely by 2016, and other claiming to have enough burial space for the next century.

The report, which comes in at more than fifty pages, is packed with statistics and figure pointing to the increase in demand, particularly in those areas with a large Muslim or Orthodox Jewish population. Amongst the findings of the report was the fact that eight London boroughs contained no significant burial space and that others were relying for future provision upon "creating" new spaces. The method for creating these spaces varies from cemetery to cemetery, and includes:

• Putting top soil on existing graves to create more

• Finding room in the gaps between existing graves

• Creating burial chambers above existing graves

Perhaps the most logical method of creating extra space, and the one which was considered as long ago as 2007, is the "re-using" of existing graves. Re-using a grave consists of re-opening the grave, digging a deeper hole, replacing the original remains and then putting new remains on top. For many religions such an act would be considered unthinkable, and it has indeed been against the law since the Burial Act of 1857 banned exhuming bodies for this purpose. During the massive population explosion experienced in UK cities through the Industrial Revolution, churchyards across the country became overcrowded and recently buried bodies were often disinterred to make room for others. The insensitive and somewhat brutal manner in which this was done perhaps goes some of the way towards explaining the general public opposition to the idea of re-use. Since 2006, however, private legislation has been in place to allow the public burial authorities in London to re-use graves in this manner; the fact that very few graves have been re-used is indicative of the sensitivity which the idea generates. When the London borough of Southwark announced that it was considering a policy of re-using graves there were wide spread protests, and virtually the only cemetery to adopt the policy on a larger scale is the City of London Cemetery. Even then, the policy is limited to those graves which are at least 75 years old and involves a notice posted on the headstone, and elsewhere, for the six months before re-use. If there is any objection then the grave in question won’t be re-used.

Even if the policy was to be taken up on a more widespread basis, however, which seems unlikely, it would not be sufficient to deal with the impending crisis. Other countries around the world suggest possible solutions as well as the impact which the lack of burial places could have. In countries such as Singapore, Germany and Belgium, for example, graves are supplied free of charge for approximately 20 years, after which remaining family members must start paying rent, or see the grave recycled, with the original occupant buried more deeply or shifted entirely to a separate mass grave.

In cities such as New York, where there is virtually no available space left, a plot can cost as much as $20,000 (the amount paid by the late Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York, who passed away in 2013). In Hong Kong, meanwhile, a private grave can cost as much as $30,000, whilst even small spaces for the storage of cremated remains in urns have a five year waiting list.

More radical solutions include the growth of "green funerals," in which bodies are buried in woodland or meadow sites, or, in the case of the Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica in Santos, Brazil, a 14 storey tall "vertical cemetery," which is an idea also being considered by cities such as Bogota and Mumbai. Perhaps the most cutting edge concept of all comes in the shape of the virtual graves created by the Hong Kong government to allow people unable to source a burial plot to have a ‘place’ at which they could remember their loved ones.

No matter which solution the UK finally arrives at, the nature of the problem is clear and is not going to solve itself. The beginning of any process will be a willingness to actually face up to and talk about the one question which, without exception, we can all expect to have to face one day.

Harley Investments are currently developing sites across the country to try a deal with the social problem of burial space in some of the bigger metropolitan cities. Across London where space is due to run out as early as 2019 they are in the process of delivering 2 new multi faith cemeteries to help ease this issue.
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Harley Investments
Adam Hicken

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