House of Commons Library

Reuse of graves

Published Monday, June 12, 2017

In some areas land for burial is scarce and some burial grounds have closed because they are full. This Commons Library briefing paper considers the issue of reuse of graves as a means of addressing this problem.

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England and Wales

Shortage of space for burial

In some areas, land for burial is scarce and some burial grounds have closed because they are full. Many people, including some faith groups for whom burial is a religious requirement, do not wish to consider the option of cremation.  The reuse of graves has been under consideration for some time as a means of addressing this problem.

Current position

The general position is that buried human remains may not be disturbed without specific authority. Section 25 of the Burial Act 1857 makes it an offence to remove buried human remains without a licence from the Secretary of State or, in relation to ground consecrated according to the rites of the Church of England, a faculty (permission from the Church).

In limited circumstances, London burial authorities already have power to disturb graves older than 75 years for the purpose of deepening the grave to allow further burials to take place.  However, in September 2014, the then Justice Minister, Simon Hughes, indicated that the use of the statutory powers by London burial authorities at that time was “almost non‑existent”.  He said that it would be necessary to look at why the powers available to London burial authorities were not being used before considering whether similar powers should be made available in other areas.  Graves have, however, been reused in London with Church permission.

Labour Government consultation

In 2004, the Labour Government consulted on a number of issues relating to burial law, including the reuse of graves. The method suggested (the “lift and deepen” method) involves the exhumation of remains in an existing grave, digging the grave to a greater depth, re-interring the remains (in a fresh coffin, if necessary), and using the rest of the grave for fresh burials.  The proposal to reuse graves had a mixed reception. 

In its response to the consultation, the Labour Government initially indicated it was satisfied that it would be right to enable graves to be reused, subject to appropriate safeguards. However, it later said that this issue was being kept under review but was not being taken forward at that time.  Successive Governments have similarly kept the issue under review.

Scotland

In Scotland, graves are referred to as “lairs”.

New legislation, the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016, provides for the reuse of burial lairs in specified circumstances. 

The legislation followed a Scottish Government consultation on a proposed burial and cremation bill, which asked questions about alleviating pressure on burial grounds. Most individuals who responded to the consultation opposed the proposal to reuse burial lairs.

The Scottish Government considered that, despite these objections, the fundamental purpose of the proposal remained valid and would be taken forward, and pointed to the safeguards which would be put in place.

Commons Briefing papers SN04060

Author: Catherine Fairbairn

Topics: Burial and cremation, Death, Funerals

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