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How grave shortages are causing us to rethink burials

Cemetery in the UK

The growing shortage of gravesites in the UK is a nationwide problem. With almost a half of all local authorities claiming that they will run out of burial plots in just 20 years, burials in cemeteries and church yards may one day turn into an exclusive privilege reserved for the wealthy.

One solution that has been suggested is the reuse of existing graves. Although controversial, this strategy could make cemeteries more sustainable, allowing them to offer grave plots long into the future.

In this plan, existing graves would be dug up and deepened so that a single burial plot can hold two coffins. Rather than being stacked one on top of the other, these coffins will be buried at different depths, keeping a respectful distance from each other.

Is re-using graves the solution?

The City of London Cemetery is one such burial site that uses this system. Today, it has already reused over 1,500 graves. This 160-year-old cemetery currently holds the remains of over 780,000 people, with 1,000 new residents added each year. This makes the City of London Cemetery one of the sites in greatest need of a solution.

Unsurprisingly, the idea of reusing graves does not sit well with everyone. The cemetery’s superintendent, Gary Burks, understands people’s concerns but insists the feelings of the public comes first. “If people don’t want a grave reused, it won’t be,” he said.

Only graves of 75 years and older are considered to be reused, and warning notices are posted on graves six months in advance, allowing the family time to object to the plan. “With so many, after 75 years, families have moved away and the graves are not visited any more,” he reasons.

These measures are still not enough for some opponents who argue that the digging up and reburying of remains is disrespectful and that religious and cultural traditions are being ignored. One opponent, John Repsch, speaking about a similar plan in his local cemetery in Southwark, described the whole project as “horrific.”

However, this strategy has overcome initial resistance and has been successful for other cemeteries. Prague’s Jewish cemetery, for example, has been reusing graves in this way for many years.

Alternatives to reusing graves

Building new cemeteries can relieve some demand for graves, and other burial sites have introduced vertical, multi-tiered cemeteries that offer above ground burial as a solution, as with the Yarkon cemetery in Israel. These solutions, however, can be costly and involve significant planning.

Tim Morris, chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, suggests that “re-use is the only sustainable option available,” believing that the “money needed to build new cemeteries could be saved, and spent on the living, through the reuse of graves.”

The same survey that revealed that almost half of the local authorities in the UK may run out of grave plots within two decades showed that a quarter felt that they would be unable to offer burials in just 10 years. With the situation reaching crisis point, perhaps the solution rests on our shoulders? Namely, what we choose to happen to us after we pass away.

Cremation instead of burial

Our guide to cremations discusses how they have steadily increased in popularity over the last century, with three out of four of people preferring cremation today. In the last decade, however, this increase has slowed to a point where demand for burials is no longer falling. Adding to this, many choose to have their ashes buried in a cemetery plot, congesting our burial sites even further. Choosing to spread your ashes instead is one way to relieve this demand for space.

Woodland burial sites

Others are deciding to have green funerals in woodland burial sites. Green funerals use coffins made from biodegradable materials and only use tree saplings to mark the grave site. As a result, these locations are more sustainable than traditional cemeteries and provide an elegant alternative to other burial sites.

What does this mean for you?

Although responsibility does fall on us to some degree, even widespread cultural change is unlikely to completely remove the demand for burial in church yards and cemeteries. If you still desire a traditonal burial, you can make the arrangements today to guarantee a cemetery plot. You could consider having your ashes spread across somewhere of significance or plan a woodland burial. There are also a number of other options available that are equally as respectful and elegant as traditional burials.

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