Cramped underground: the alternatives to bury our dead

Space has been a problem in UK cemeteries for many years now, with some areas in big cities and small parishes unable to bury their dead. As a result some people are being forced to search for a final resting place miles from home. The Oxfordshire town of Bicester, for example, was reported to have run out of burial space as long ago as 2013.

It is a fact that the UK’s population is growing older. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there was an increase in deaths in England and Wales in 2015 due to the ageing population and a higher incidence of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

If we consider the actual demographics, the ONS also released figures showing that 20 percent of the population in 2015 was over 65 years old. This amounts to 13 million UK residents out of a total of around 65 million. This worsens an already existing crisis within the funeral service, a problem that has yet to be addressed.

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“The Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management has been campaigning for a change in regulation since before the 2000s”, says Tim Morris, its chief executive. He adds: “The current cemeteries aren’t sustainable and new ones are difficult to afford for local authorities”. Furthermore, councils lack funding to be able to sustain any new cemeteries. The lack of space is also increasingly affecting the public, making funerals, and the costs involved, more expensive for families. Despite this, no solution has been offered by central Government regarding national policy on burials.

According to the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, about three quarters of the population choose cremation, with 25 percent of people wanting to be buried with their families. This percentage has been constant for several years. Taking this into account, according to the experts there are alternatives that could safeguard the system. One option would be to encourage more people to choose cremation rather than burial. Cremation may be the main choice for UK citizens but it is still regarded by many as an unacceptable way to say goodbye to their loved ones. It may also be  perceived as a less attractive option, making it difficult for families to attend a crematorium service. Furthermore, the cremation process releases CO2. As a result, people who worry about the environment might be less likely to choose it over other methods.

Over the years more environmentally-friendly options to traditional cremation have appeared. One example is cryomation, which involves immersing the body in liquid nitrogen, freezing it to -196 degrees until it becomes brittle. It can then be processed into small granular remains which will be returned to the family. So far, this has mainly been implemented in Canada and is seen as a greener alternative to traditional burials and cremation since it does not use fossil fuels.

Another alternative is resomation, a process which does not use fire. Instead it uses a solution of 95 percent water with five percent alkaline hydrolysis to reduce the body to liquid and ashes. This process cleans the bones and leaves them with a pure white colour.

Afterward, they are processed until they become white ashes which are then returned to the family. Sandy Sullivan, founder and director of Resomation Ltd, explains: “The main reason people choose resomation is because they see it as a gentle method of cremation. They are present while it happens and it creates a living consciousness of it. It also has environmental credentials according to independent studies in the Netherlands”.

“We are still going to run out of space. There are many cultures that only bury their dead.”

One of this studies was carried out by the biggest funeral service provider in the Netherlands, Yarden. According to Sullivan the study concluded that resomation was a more environmentally-friendly method. Also called green cremation, resomation has also been used in Canada and in the USA, specifically in Florida and Minnesota. In the UK, Rowley Regis Crematorium, under the Sandwell Council, is going to be the first place to use resomation at the end of this year. “They are building an extension to fit the machinery to do it. We have also received interest from Scotland and other areas of the UK. 2017 will mark the start of the use of resomation in this country”, adds Sullivan.

However, most people wanting a burial would not change their minds in spite of the availability of these alternative systems. As Sullivan says: “We are still going to run out of space. There are many cultures that only bury their dead.” Devout christians, muslims and orthodox jews are some of the people whose religious beliefs would not allow them to choose another method.

Tim Morris, chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, expressed the view that the only solution would be to change the law so that cemeteries could reuse graves. He adds: “London and Scotland already use this system. 75 years after the burial the family receives a notification that their grave could be reused, if nobody objects the graves can be used again”.

Germany and Spain are some of the countries in Europe that reuse their graves. In Germany a letter is sent after 15 to 30 years, much sooner than in the UK, notifying the family that the grave is going to be reused. In Spain people aren’t buried underground anymore. Instead, each city builds small shelf-like niches, which families rent until the body has completely decomposed and can be placed in a communal burial ground. The niche is then available to be reused. The fact that some other countries already use this method to bury their dead is not the only justification for the law to be changed. According to Morris: “The public is considered unprotected. They think we already reuse the graves, but then realise that this is not true”. He also expresses the view that “things are getting quite critical. Small parishes can’t afford new cemeteries. The only answer is to reuse them”.

Half of the cemeteries in the UK will be full by 2020 according to a survey carried out in 2013 by the BBC. As space in cemeteries continues to run out all over the country, methods like the ones proposed by the experts could be the answer to the problem, if implemented. However, the Government still needs to take action to change legislation to allow the reuse of graves, before it is too late.


 Judith is a multimedia journalist and University of Sheffield Graduate, where she undertook an MA in Magazine Journalism. She has a keen interest in lifestyle and B2B writing and was shortlisted twice at the 2017 Magazine Awards and achieved a Highly Commended for the BBC Worldwide outstanding Non-Consumer Journalist. She has written for Good Housekeeping Digital, CityMag and El Nou9 and collaborated in various radio broadcasting stations. You can find her on twitter here: @juthtorner

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