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HomeNewsHertfordshire areas are running out of burial spaces amidst 'national shortage'

Hertfordshire areas are running out of burial spaces amidst ‘national shortage’

A Hertfordshire council with just 13 years left before grave space runs out has taken its case to Parliament, asking lawmakers for permission to reuse slots where the deceased have already been buried.

Another authority in the county has just one year left until general burials could end, a Local Democracy Reporting Service investigation has found.

Eleven councils in total reported their graveyard land supply will be exhausted within two decades, unless they can prepare new ground.

“There is a national shortage of burial space,” said University of Reading deathscapes expert Professor Avril Maddrell.

“This is well known and has been well known for a long time.

“More than three quarters of the population opt for cremation in England and Wales, but even though burials relate to the requests of a quarter of the population, it is still creating a crisis in terms of the availability of land.

“Really, we need a national conversation about cemeteries and crematoria, how they can be used effectively, and what they mean to local communities, families and faith communities.

“We also need to have a conversation about what they mean in terms of public space, green space and public amenity in other ways.”

Hertfordshire areas are running out of burial spaces amidst 'national shortage' Harrow Online
Credit: Will Durrant/LDRS

166-year-old law governs grave rights

In 1854, the MP for Isle of Wight lamented “the habitual desecration of burial grounds”.

Queen Victoria was on the throne.

Londoners celebrated a Britain in flux at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

The country was changing and so were its cemeteries.

MPs told the Commons a bath-house replaced a cemetery in St James’s, London.

Builders “cast” bodies from their resting places to other parts of the cemetery when they laid foundations for a new vestry hall in Kensington.

By 1857, MPs agreed to a law which made it illegal to exhume the dead without express consent of the court or government.

This 166-year-old law is still in force.

But not everywhere grants grave rights in perpetuity.

Eleven researchers, including Professor Maddrell, compared grave rights across western and northern Europe.

They found Luxembourg grants secular ownership for 15 to 30 years.

In the Netherlands, some cemeteries grant grave ownership for as little as 10 years, with perpetual burial rights in the region of 10,000€ (£8,634).

Governments in Sweden and Norway grant burial rights for 20 to 25 years, then charge a fee.

In Scotland, councils can end burial rights after 25 years.

In England and Wales, only in special cases do councils have the power to end burial rights after 75 years and reuse graves – with a consultation, and the person who owns the rights can object.

Professor Maddrell said some people require perpetual grave rights for “peace of mind about the wellbeing of their loved ones in the afterlife”.

She said: “Just because somebody is dead, it does not mean the relationship ends, or that the responsibility to that person ends.

“There is also a place-based relationship – ‘this is our place, where our family is laid to rest’.”

Cemeteries in Elstree and Hatfield closest to full

Bishop’s Stortford Town Council is asking for the same powers that the London boroughs have.

The Hertfordshire authority has 13 years of space left in its two town centre cemeteries.

With help from East Herts Council, it has asked lawmakers to let them reuse graves after 75 years, as long as the grave owner does not object.

At a Bishop’s Stortford Cemetery Bill reading on Thursday, September 14, the Viscount Stansgate, a Labour peer, told the House of Lords: “This is a bill about cemeteries and running out of space.

“I think you will find in years to come, my Lords, that more and more cemeteries will be in this position, so we may have further bills of this kind.”

Freedom of information requests show Allum Lane cemetery in Elstree has just one year of space remaining.

Hertsmere Borough Council agreed to look at buying new land for a cemetery extension in 2021.

“A lot of local authority cemeteries are full or reaching capacity nationwide,” a Hertsmere spokesperson said.

“It is not a statutory requirement to provide burial facilities.

“Local authorities struggle to predict demand, because it is, by nature, a difficult thing to predict demand for.”

Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council said The Lawn in Hatfield has roughly three years of space left.

Brent London Borough Council said its Carpenders Park Lawn Cemetery near Watford has just eight to 10 years left.

Watford Borough Council and Bishop’s Stortford Town Council both have 13 years of supply.

Nettleden with Potten End Parish Council near Hemel Hempstead reported having the most space left – roughly 177 years.

Graves at Potten End Burial Ground are available to people who usually live in the parish.

Buntingford Town Council’s Layston Cemetery has at least 100 years left.

It opened in May 2021.

Hertfordshire areas are running out of burial spaces amidst 'national shortage' Harrow Online
Chorleywood Lawn Cemetery in Hertfordshire. Credit: Will Durrant/LDRS

Policy experts looking at ‘outdated’ laws

Julie Dunk, the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM) chief executive, has called for a policy change.

“Central government has traditionally taken a hands-off approach and has allowed local authorities and private companies to make provision for burial at a local level,” Ms Dunk said.

“With pressure on land for building and other purposes increasing, there is limited supply for new burial spaces.

“Burial needs to remain a local, affordable option for people, so help in the form of planning policies would be ideal, for example if a new housing development is being considered, there should be enough burial space within the area to serve the local population for the foreseeable future.

“Policies to ensure that burial has as little negative impact on the environment as possible would also be welcomed.”

Ms Dunk added: “Cemeteries are not only landscapes of mourning, but are also important heritage and ecological assets and need to be maintained according to a conservation management plan.”

The Ministry of Justice looks after burial grounds policy in England.

A spokesperson said: “We recognise this is a sensitive issue and are considering whether action may be needed.

“In the meantime, the Law Commission is looking carefully at the law in this area.”

In 2022, the Law Commission launched a review of cemetery laws which it labelled “outdated”.

Professor Nick Hopkins, family law commissioner, said at the time: “Ensuring that our loved ones are treated with dignity and respect after they pass away is something that matters to everyone, whatever their background, culture or belief.

“Current laws are outdated, unclear, and do not protect the wishes of those who have passed away.

“Our review will consider the merits of a new framework that provides greater legal clarity, and is more responsive to the needs of modern society.”

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