Over the border: Bishop’s Stortford Town Council granted power to reuse graves 

Politics / Sun 24th Mar 2024 at 11:45am

BISHOP’S Stortford is the first English town outside London where graves on unconsecrated land can be reused.

The Bishop’s Stortford Cemetery Act became law on Wednesday, March 20.

It gives the town council powers to “lift and deepen” graves in its Old Cemetery and New Cemetery if those plots are at least 75 years old.

This involves digging up the remains in an existing grave, digging that grave to a greater depth, and then re-interring the remains, sometimes in a new coffin.

The rest of the grave could be used for fresh burials.

The new law also gives Bishop’s Stortford Town Council the power to extinguish people’s right of burial, if a person has not exercised that right for at least 75 years.

London borough councils already have similar powers, through the London Local Authorities Act 2007.

Special laws similar to the Bishop’s Stortford Cemetery Act also apply at the private Highgate Cemetery in Camden, the resting place of Karl Marx and George Michael, and New Southgate Cemetery in Barnet.

Town council chiefs feared Bishop’s Stortford would run out of cemetery space by the mid-2030s without new powers.

“It is vital that the shortage of cemetery land is addressed as soon as possible, so that people continue to have access to local, affordable burials, and that cemeteries remain sustainable,” said Julie Dunk, chief executive of the National Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM).

“We’re really pleased that the Bishop’s Stortford Cemetery Act has now been passed and that the people of Bishop’s Stortford will be able to be buried locally into the future.

“Hopefully this will be a spur to the government to answer the calls that the ICCM has been making for over 20 years, to pass legislation to enable reuse of old, abandoned graves.”

Bishop’s Stortford Town Council staff must tell the owners of a right of burial if they plan to extinguish it.

They must also place a notice close to the grave, online and in a newspaper six months before disturbing human remains or removing a right of burial.

A relative can object to the plans once they are declared, which puts a 25-year hold on the authority taking any action.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which looks after the graves of people who died in the two world wars, can also object to the reuse of graves.

A Bishop’s Stortford Town Council spokesperson told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “If people come and object in line with the law, that’s not a problem to us.

“We are pleased that this solves a problem in perpetuity.”

The authority has adopted a grave reuse protocol on top of the Bishop’s Stortford Cemetery Act.

It sets out graves will not be reused if there is a “clearly defined but damaged coffin with significant skeletal remains found”.

If gravediggers find a fully intact coffin or remains that are not fully decomposed, the authority will also backfill the grave without reusing it.

“All remains that are disturbed will be reburied in the same grave in which they are found,” the protocol adds.

An LDRS probe in 2023 found seven councils in Hertfordshire with 11 cemeteries between them had graveyard land supply which could be exhausted within two decades – including Bishop’s Stortford Town Council.

Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council is set to run out of space at The Lawn, Hatfield by approximately 2028.

The authority has earmarked land to expand the Hatfield cemetery in its 2016-2036 housing masterplan.

Hertsmere Borough Council has approximately one year before Allum Lane cemetery in Elstree is full.

The authority ran a survey on cemetery expansion which closed on Monday, February 5.

A 167-year-old law prevents public authorities from disturbing graves without special permissions – the Burial Act 1857.

The Law Commission, which looks at how laws could be modernised, is studying law of burial in England and Wales.

“Burial space is running out across England and Wales, with the situation worse in some urban areas,” the commission’s website reads.

“Grave reuse has been proposed as a solution to this problem, but reform to permit the reuse of graves must include sufficient safeguards to maintain public support.”

Viscount Stansgate, a Labour peer, was one of the Bill Committee members who looked at the Bishop’s Stortford Cemetery Act in draft form.

He told the House of Lords in September: “This is a bill about cemeteries and running out of space. I think you will find in years to come, my Lords, that more and more cemeteries will be in this position, so we may have further bills of this kind.”

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1 Comment for Over the border: Bishop’s Stortford Town Council granted power to reuse graves :

2024-03-25 09:34:12

Let us hope that this is not used as an excuse to remove head and foot stones from graves as they are of interest to family historians, it has been the fashion to remove them on health and safety grounds from graveyards when it would take little to make them safe and in fact it is to make grass cutting easier.

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