We’re running out of space to bury our dead – it’s time to re-use graves

In the heart of East London, there is a cemetery pioneering a solution to the national shortage of grave space that is reaching crisis levels.

The City of London Cemetery and Crematorium in Newham, a beautiful 163-year-old, 200-acre Grade I listed site managed by the City of London Corporation, offers a picturesque haven for thousands of visitors, 365 days of the year.

It is one of the largest municipal cemeteries in Europe and was reaching full capacity. But instead of ceasing burial services, opening new cemeteries or asking the local community to go to neighbouring boroughs, we decided to implement a groundbreaking new policy: grave recycling.

It is exactly what it sounds like – when a grave has been unused for over 75 years and a family consents or can’t be contacted, we place a new body into it. We believe this could be the solution to the UK’s burial space problem.

We have recycled more than 1,500 graves at the site since 2009. They are a popular choice with over 60 per cent of burials now using recycled graves.

Many of the cemetery’s older graves have leases which have long run out and are no longer visited, and all the unused space remaining fallow.

Our programme allows new families to lease these existing graves and re-use any monuments already on them. The memorials are completely renovated and brought back to their former beauty. If any remains are found, they are placed deeper within the grave.

When the grave’s existing memorial is turned around, what was the front becomes the back, revealing a blank surface for the new leaseholders to have their own family’s inscription engraved on the headstone.

This doesn’t apply to every grave. Those belonging to people who died of war-related injuries in the First World War and the Second World War, and civilians who died as a result of enemy action during the war – including the Blitz – are not touched as a sign of respect.

Nevertheless, this is solving a crucial problem. A 2013 local authority survey found that almost half of England’s cemeteries will run out of space within 20 years. A quarter would be full within a decade, and many said they will run out of space within five years.

This overcrowding can have an emotional as well as a physical impact, forcing families to travel away from their communities to bury their loved ones if there’s no space in their local cemetery.

It can separate family graves, preventing them from being buried in the same place as their relatives.

Choosing a recycled grave is also around £1,200 cheaper, making a burial more accessible and a popular option to people who are on lower incomes.

I have worked at the cemetery since 1985. In 1993 I began to play a greater role in its management before going on to become the cemetery’s superintendent in 2009.

My father Dennis followed a similar route, starting as a gardener in the 1960s and retiring as a foreman in 1997. A vast wealth of knowledge on what the cemetery requires to run has been passed down through generations.

In London, the problem is at crunch point, with some local authorities stopping burial services and financial subsidies altogether. This simple, effective and reliable scheme is popular among the local community and continues to be received positively.

It is already being used across Europe in countries including Germany, Portugal and Greece, where alongside perpetual burials slots, temporary burial plots are leased for varying amounts of time.

In London, the problem is at crunch point, with some local authorities stopping burial services and financial subsidies altogether.

There are challenges in putting this kind of programme into practice. Crucially, local authorities need to be confident in the accuracy of their plans and records – something which isn’t always the case (the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium has kept comprehensive records from when it first opened in 1856).

Successful implementation also requires that all legal requirements are met when it comes to burial rights, and it must be a high-quality service for the community with a sympathetic and professional facility for the deceased.

Currently, only the local authority cemeteries in Greater London have the correct bylaws for grave re-use. London councils have been legally able to provide a grave recycling option since 2007 under the London Local Authorities Act but recent changes in Scottish burial law has made reuse a possibility in Scotland too.

As space runs out and we look ahead to the future, public authorities may look for further eco-friendly and sustainable alternatives.

This can include foregoing embalming, getting buried in a wood-only casket and using alkaline hydrolysis instead of cremating.

And in line with today’s environmental issues, there are now biodegradable-casket options including bamboo, paper, cardboard, wool, banana leaf and willow.

Innovative and appropriate creations are needed in order to maintain a balance between the economics and emotional needs of those who have lost family.

All Rights Reserved for Gary Burks

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