Burial or Cremation?

Making decisions about whether to bury or cremate the body of someone who has died without knowing the full facts about either practice can result in leaving some people with regrets about whether they had made the right decision. People making advanced funeral arrangements for themselves may well have time to explore the options and way up the pros and cons about burial and cremation. Whether making arrangements for yourself or for someone else, my concern is that many people may choose burial over cremation without being fully aware of what the law allows for in England or Wales. Many people might believe that when buried, a body remains undisturbed in the ground forever, or as has been expressed to me on many occasion, is buried for at least 100 years. In respect of the latter this is not the case, which leads me to feel it necessary to include some information about burial on this site.

Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977 gives local authorities’ power to grant members of the public up to 100 years to own the exclusive rights of burial for a grave in a public cemetery. A fee would need to be paid which varies from one district to another. The “exclusive rights of burial”, is often referred to as “burial rights” and must be purchased, in addition to another fee which must be paid to a local authority, which again will vary from one district to another, for permission to erect a memorial stone. Owning the “burial rights” legally prevents someone at the local authority or anyone else removing a memorial stone, reopening the grave and burying another body in that grave without the owner’s permission. Prior to the law changing in 1977, people were granted burial rights in perpetuity…meaning for ever.

Note that the grave itself is ‘never’ owned by someone who has purchased the burial rights. The land owner, whether this is a local authority or anyone else, will still retain ownership of the grave as being part of the land, but not any articles of personal property e.g. jewellery, clothing etc. that have been buried with a body. These may be taken by their rightful owner as determined by traditional property rules or laws relating to descent and distribution or wills, as they are material objects independent of the body. This includes any memorial stone which has been erected on a grave. A property right does not exist in the body of someone who has died. For more information on this subject I point visitors to this site to the Farlex, The Free Dictionary website http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/corpse

In respect of a body undisturbed in a grave in a public cemetery, I am aware that some London authorities are looking to revert to old practices for old existing graves when the “burial rights” have expired and not renewed. When such practice takes place, if indeed it has not already done so, this is termed as the ‘lift and deepen method’. This method includes lifting a body out of a grave, the grave dug deeper, and the body returned to the lowest position in the same grave. The authority then sells more space in the cemetery.

Some London authorities have resold space remaining in old graves e.g. when a double or treble depth grave has been dug, but only one body is buried in the grave and where there is no lawful owner of burial rights. These graves are often referred to by an authority as “reclaimed” graves. What I can report here, is that the City of London Cemetery has sold existing grave space to people and calls these graves a “Heritage Grave”. To my knowledge similar practice has been adopted in the Mitcham Road cemetery in Croydon, though I do not know what names are given to these graves in that district. What I am confident of is that as this is happening in the London area, we can each be certain that at some time in the future all local authorities will resort to this practice, or the lift and deepen method.

In my own ignorance, and the ignorance of immediate family members that have already passed away, the adults amongst us had little knowledge about what the law says about burial in England. My father decided to bury my mother when she died, and was surprised to learn that he bought “burial rights” for only 99 years. He had thought that the time granted was forever. When my father later died, I inherited the burial rights which are documented in the form of a lease/grant, for the grave he shares with my mother. When my brother buried his son, he too was granted 99 years for a treble depth grave. When I made the decision to bury my own son in 2006, I believed that when making an application to purchase the” burial rights” in 2007 that I had bought a lease/grant for 99 years. When I received the document I didn’t even examine it. I looked at it some three years later and was horrified to learn that the time granted in my son’s grave was for only thirty (30) years. I had believed that the document I had been issued was, in terms of time granted in graves, just the same as issued on my parent’s grave, and my brother his son. I acknowledge that I was foolish not to examine the small print and instead make assumptions.

I learned in 2010 that most local authorities had reduced time granted on graves in public cemeteries in or around 1999. This was the year I lost my father who died after my brother lost and buried his son. I have not established numbers for how many local authorities failed to make public that cemetery practice had changed, but I do know for certain that Milton Keynes burial authority failed to publish or display a Public Notice about these changes. Had it done so, maybe then I would not have made assumptions that the grant issued for my son’s grave in 2007 was the same in term of years granted on other family graves in the 1990’s. It had been twenty two years since the law was changed in 1977 and this is enough time for people to begin forming new inherent beliefs, hence why many people now may still believe that the law allows up to 100 years.

Failing to give Notice about such drastic changes in policy can only mean that public servants rely heavily on people seeking out the information that they need when they need it, e.g. when purchasing the burial rights for a grave. But even then it does not mean that people purchasing burial rights before they die or a relative purchasing the rights after someone has died, will be fully informed about any change in policy or practice.

Whilst tending to my son’s grave I met with a woman whose father is buried in the same cemetery. He had only been buried for two days when I met her. She was quite upset that her father had before he died, bought a treble depth grave for himself and two of his children. She explained how she only learnt two days before his funeral was to take place that the grant that he had purchased was for only thirty (30) years. She was confident that her father had no idea and likely believed that he and eventually his children would occupy the grave that he had purchased undisturbed, just like the practice in his homeland which was Cyprus. She was adamant that he would not have made a decision to buy a grave in England if he thought otherwise. She explained that he had always wished to be buried in Cyprus, but changed his mind so that his two children would be buried with him in England. The woman appeared quite concerned about the prospect of still being alive when the burial rights expired and was worried about how her and/or her sibling was going to be able to afford to renew the burial rights. We both agreed that the cost would likely have increased substantially by the time the rights on our family graves expired.

I am not an advocate for cremation, but had I known when I lost my son what I know now about burial practices in public cemeteries, I maybe would have considered cremating my son’s body. I worry that when I am gone, and his father and his brother are long gone, who will renew the burial rights which prevent anyone else from reopening his grave or even my parents and other family graves.

Forewarned is forearmed and ignorance does not always prove to be bliss!

For information about how to bury a body in land that is privately owned, I point visitors to this site to the Natural Death Centre website: http://www.naturaldeath.org.uk/index.php?page=home-burial

For information about cremation I point visitors to this site to their nearest local authority via the GOV.UK website: https://www.gov.uk/find-local-council