Should we be reusing graves?

Image of a graveyard.

Reusing graves can be controversial, with lots of people asking whether it’s respectful and what safeguards are in place. But there are also reasons why a reclaimed grave can be a good option, like sustainability. We’ll bust some myths about the practice and let you know what reusing a grave really involves.

What are reclaimed graves?

Reusing or reclaiming a grave is where someone who has died is buried in an older grave rather than a completely new space. Sometimes, people worry that this means the grave will be shallow, but the government actually recommends a ‘lift and deepen method.’

This means that the previous person and any remains of their coffin are removed, and the grave is made deeper. Because re-used graves are old, it may well be that there’s nothing left at all. Afterwards, the first person is reburied, and the second person is buried at a normal depth. The guidelines mean that they should stay separate and be buried at a safe depth.

Cemeteries in ‘crisis’: why reuse graves?

The main reason why people want to reuse graves is the shortage of land that’s available for burials. A 2013 BBC survey found that nearly half of cemeteries will run out of space within 20 years. The problem is especially bad in cities like London, though it’s a serious issue in small rural councils too.

It’s also a situation that’s not going away any time soon. Although three-quarters of people are choosing cremation, there’s still a steady demand for burial. Being buried can be especially important for some religious communities. But the shortage of land means that it’s more expensive than ever — which can be a real challenge for some families.

It might seem like the obvious solution is just to open new cemeteries. But the available land is usually outside of cities, which means that most people would be buried far away from home. There’s also a financial issue for cemeteries, because opening a new space can raise their maintenance costs. With the land prices rising, the cost of burial also goes up, and that just isn’t sustainable for most people.

Victorians and beyond: what does the law say?

Historically, re-using graves wasn’t uncommon. But as more people moved into cities during the Industrial Revolution, cemeteries also became crowded. Without any modern safeguards in place, graves were sometimes re-used quickly and without much thought for the dignity of the people who had died. The 1857 Burial Act made it illegal to disturb a grave without permission from the Secretary of State or (on consecrated land) from the Church of England.

But with burial grounds running out of space, the London Local Authorities Act 2007 gave councils the power to reuse graves in London — with some rules attached. The government considered rolling out the legislation to the rest of the country, but has kept the changes under review.

In Scotland, a piece of 2016 legislation also allowed graves to be reused. Some people pushed back against this by arguing that graves shouldn’t ever be disturbed. But the government decided that the benefits outweighed the costs, and passed the bill — making grave reuse a possibility in Scotland too.

Can any grave be reused?

A really common concern about reusing graves is that someone who recently died might be disturbed. It’s an understandable worry, but cemeteries in London can only reuse graves that are at least 75 years old. In the past, many graves were sold in perpetuity, but the Greater London Councils Act 1974 means this right can be reversed.

Now, most graves are sold for between 10 and 100 years. Once this ends, if the owner is still living they can renew or pass the rights to another family member. If a person has already died, the legal heir can pay to keep the rights themselves.

Another important safeguard is that cemeteries have to try and contact the owner to ask for permission to re-use a grave. When the owner can’t be contacted, notices are put on the headstone for at least six-months in case anyone visits. If the owner (usually a descendent of the person who has died) says no, the grave won’t be re-used — even if the lease has ended.

Are we actually reusing graves?

In 2014, the then Justice Minister, Simon Hughes, said the number of London burial authorities using their statutory powers to reclaim graves was ‘almost non‑existent.’ This is partly because it’s not always clear who the owner is, especially with older graves. If the owner really can’t be found, then posting notices should be enough to let the grave be reused. But each cemetery needs to draft and agree on what procedure they’ll use to do this.

Right now, graves are being reused in London with permission from the church. This is because burial law is different for areas that come under Church of England jurisdiction — meaning either a churchyard or consecrated land that’s part of a larger cemetery. This goes all the way back to the 1857 Burial Act, which laid down different rules for exhumation on church land.

Usually, cemeteries need a Ministry of Justice licence to reuse graves, but the Church of England can use a ‘faculty’ instead. A faculty is basically just permission from a church court to carry out work on buildings or their contents. The church also uses the ‘lift and deepen’ approach, and each diocese has its own best-practice guidelines.

Close to home: the benefits of reusing a grave

The reasons for reclaiming a grave might seem a little bit cold and pragmatic, but there’s also more emotional reasons. The land shortage means that it’s sometimes difficult to be buried close to home — making it hard for family and friends to visit.

A reclaimed grave can also be a good option if you’d like to hold a more eco-friendly funeral. Reusing space takes pressure off the land and helps make cemeteries more sustainable. While lots of eco-minded people choose a natural burial ground, these are usually outside of cities. This means that re-using a grave can be a good option if being close to family feels important.

Of course, you should have the funeral that works best for you — and for some people that absolutely won’t involve a reclaimed grave. But if you’re exploring different options, it may be helpful to remember that reusing a grave doesn’t mean a shallow burial with someone who has recently died. Instead, it can keep you closer to home and even reduce some pressure on the planet.

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