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Burial Space

Volume 549: debated on Wednesday 5 September 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Swayne.)

At the outset I would like to congratulate wholeheartedly the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), on her promotion. She of course followed my great friend Ann Widdecombe as Member of Parliament for Maidstone and The Weald and I am absolutely delighted that she has been made a Minister. I have every confidence that when she replies she will satisfy all my very reasonable demands.

I fully understand that the subject I am raising this evening is not the most cheerful one. It is taboo to talk about death, but none of us is immortal—I think—and the one thing that is certain is that we are all going to die. According to the Dying Matters coalition, two thirds of us are uncomfortable talking about dying and death. However, thinking about what happens to us after we are gone is likely to be of huge significance, not just from our personal perspective but from that of the loved ones we leave behind. That thinking will often centre on funeral arrangements, which provide the very last chance to leave a mark on the world that we have just left.

I have probably been to more funerals than I have had meals. I have never been to a truly happy one, but if the person has lived a reasonable length of time, I like to see the funeral as a celebration of that person’s life. That notion was gained from my time on the all-party group on funerals and bereavement. Recently, I have been to the funeral of my good friend Ken Hargreaves, Member of Parliament for Hyndburn from 1983 to 1992. We are having a memorial service for him in the Crypt on the third Wednesday of October; the date is up in the Crypt. The ceremony in Hyndburn was very moving and I had the honour of giving the eulogy. I also recently went to the funeral of Joan Short, my first election agent in the late 1960s. That was at the City of London crematorium.

I am not trying for a job, but I should add that a number of constituents have asked me to preside over the funerals of their loved ones. It has happened when the loved one has not had any particular faith. Although I have not entirely enjoyed presiding, if that is what the departed constituent has wanted me to do, that is what I have done.

Unless a Member has died and been resurrected, none of us can say what it feels like to be dead. Whether we are in some place looking down at our funeral services saying to one another, “My goodness—I can’t believe that hypocrite has turned up at my funeral,” I do not know. I have no doubt that at my funeral one or two people will go to the altar to check that the lid of the coffin has been screwed down tightly.

A funeral is a very important event. I have been to funerals at which there has been hardly anyone and to funerals with so many people that many are standing outside the church. Despite the importance of funerals, only a third of us have discussed the type of funeral we would like. I say publicly that I intend to be buried, not cremated; I hope that someone vengeful does not disregard my wishes.

Not wanting to talk about death leads to an unwillingness to address the many issues that surround it. Foremost among them is what happens to our bodies once we die. We owe it to our loved ones to ensure that what happens following our death is as smooth and pain-free as possible, while still providing a dignified remembrance. Cremation is overwhelmingly the choice of the people of the United Kingdom: about 70% of us are cremated, the highest rate in the world. In some respects, that is understandable—we are a tiny little country and we lack space. The argument is that cremation is efficient, hygienic and cheap and leaves no site behind that needs to be maintained, unlike burials.

The two things that are sure in life are death and taxes; those are things that we have to deal with whether we like it or not. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that most people choose cremation, although he said that he would like to be buried. Is he aware of the new system that at present enables three people to be buried in a grave, but could enable six people from a family to be buried together? The system means that families can be together in death, and a lot of families would like that. It also takes care of the issue of space.

I say to the hon. Gentleman, who is my friend, that I certainly am aware of that suggestion and I will be touching on it briefly. I know that it works extremely well in Northern Ireland.

I want to question whether the popularity of cremations is borne out of choice or necessity. As I said, I certainly do not want to be cremated. For some groups, religious doctrine completely rules out cremation. For instance, Jewish people, Muslims and, until recently, those of my own faith—the Catholics—disapprove of cremation, while modern environmentalists object to the environmental impact of cremation and prefer natural or green burials. The first time I was invited to attend a natural burial I thought, “My goodness, they’re putting someone in a cardboard box—is it going to collapse?”, but in fact it was done with great dignity. That is the choice for a number of environmentalists.

I wonder whether the high cremation rate can be explained by people genuinely wanting to be cremated or by the lack of choice when it comes to burial and the absence of locally accessible, well-managed cemeteries with available burial space. I do not think the answer is simple, but I would like to use this debate to explore the possibility that some people are forced into cremation because of a lack of choice about burials. I should like us to entertain the idea that this problem is going to get worse. We should face up to it, and this Parliament should give a lead.

I am aware that responsibility for burial is a very complex field involving local and parochial authorities. I also understand that at present, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows, there is no statutory requirement to make available a place for burial, but this does not change the fact that we need to approach the issue of burial space in a holistic fashion. Burial space is a problem that has plagued this country since Victorian times, and despite its resurfacing again and again, it has not been adequately addressed.

The longer we leave the issue unresolved, the more serious it is going to become. It is a particular problem in London; I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) in his place. In August 1997, the London Planning Advisory Committee published its report “Planning for Burial Space in London”. This outlined that inner-London boroughs were then estimated to have only seven years’ burial capacity remaining, while for outer-London boroughs it was up to 18 years. A more recent report of 2011 suggested that inner-London boroughs such as Lambeth, Tower Hamlets and Kensington and Chelsea had virtually no burial space remaining, while in some outer-London boroughs such as Croydon and Haringey the situation was deemed to be “critical”.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. He will know that in my constituency in the 1960s a new town was built with no cemetery provision. In the past few years the council has given planning permission for a cemetery and crematorium, but on the other side of the borough nothing is happening and we are making no progress, and there is no danger of the council forcing the issue. Yet my constituents are having to pay what amounts to a death tax by being buried or cremated in other areas. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need councils to act with compassion towards their residents—the people who are paying council tax—who ought not be forced to be buried or cremated out of the area at a huge cost to them? There are of course religious connotations. The local Catholic priests are very anxious that Skelmersdale has its own cemetery; in fact, not only Catholic priests but the local priesthood of all denominations need burial space.

I absolutely agree with everything that the hon. Lady said. She will be delighted to know that the wonderful Library briefing on this issue specifically told me about those points.

Evidence suggests that the problem is not just restricted to large metropolitan areas such as London. In rural locations, for example, there are problems with financing the purchase of new land for burial and of secure and appropriate land at a reasonable distance from the communities. I know that the hon. Lady raised the issue in the House in 2007, but it has obviously not been solved. In 2011, the Church in Wales claimed that two thirds of its 1,000 burial grounds would be full in 10 years and that it was short of funds to maintain graves. It added that it could not afford to extend or open new churchyards. It is clear that this is a major issue.

Over the past decade, Governments have begun to recognise that this is a problem, beginning in 2001 with the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee’s inquiries into cemeteries. There was also a Home Office report in 2004, but I think that there has been inactivity with regard to responding positively to the problems.

There are knock-on effects on the cost to the population. Foremost among these is the narrowing of affordable burying options. There is often no space available in the local cemetery and the family may be forced to choose a burial plot that is some distance away from where the deceased actually lived. This can be emotionally distressing and geographically challenging, with the deceased losing any links to the local area and the family having to travel some distance to visit the grave. There is an economic impact on the costs to local authorities, and I have already mentioned issues relating to the Muslim and Jewish communities.

The House should also consider the impact of historic cemeteries. We have many such cemeteries in the United Kingdom, many of which have become full and are often neglected, even though they may well contain wonderful buildings, artefacts and landscapes of great importance and heritage. It is estimated that there are approximately 3,500 pre-1914 historic cemeteries in the UK, all of which could be at risk because of lack of burial space. For example, in the London borough of Newham, where I was born and where the Olympics were staged, 60% of public open space is made up of cemetery land given over to cemeteries.

I will end with the potential solutions. The reuse of graves is a very controversial suggestion, but some people favour it. It is not a new idea—it has been under consideration for some time. I remember there being a bit of a round-the-houses about it in 1994. It is called the lift and deepen method, whereby graves are excavated to their deepest depths and all remains placed in a casket and reinterred at the bottom of the grave. The research team involved interviewed 1,603 members of the public and the majority thought that it was a good idea, but I have my own views on it. The reuse of graves older than 75 years is allowed in London under the London Local Authorities Act 2007, but I say again that it is a controversial activity. I believe that Southwark council has unveiled plans recently to tackle lack of burial space in the borough by reusing graves. If approved, such action would free up 1,600 burial plots by 2015 and more than 5,000 by 2028.

I turn now to the subject to which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) alluded in his intervention—Italian-style mausoleums. I believe that this is a possible solution. I have been to see them in America and other countries and think that, done well, they are both respectful and tasteful. They are particularly prominent in southern European countries such as, obviously, Italy. The mausoleums allow for a maximum number of entombments in a minimum amount of space. Not only do they use space effectively in burial grounds, but they provide the opportunity to be interned alongside loved ones. Such mausoleums come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and a variety of materials can be used. They are a possible solution and I think that we should learn from best practice in Northern Ireland.

Green burials are another solution to consider and provide environmental benefits. The natural process is sped up, freeing up space more quickly. There is no bulky headstone. Instead, the burial register can be anything from a shrub or tree to an electronic chip, which helps keep the space required to an absolute minimum. The coffins are made of biodegradable cardboard or papier-mâché, thus freeing up space underground at a faster rate. Finally, the graveyard when full can be turned into a nature reserve or picnic site. Many people have no problem with that. It would not be my choice, but I am probably in a tiny minority. The first green burial site was opened in Carlisle in 1993 and there are now more than 200 across the United Kingdom. A further benefit of the method is the low cost, with cardboard coffins costing as little as £60.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister what the Government’s views are on adopting the measures that I have mentioned. Such new methods are becoming more widespread and I wonder whether the Government’s position on them has altered since the debate on the matter some years ago. I am aware that the situation is being kept under review, but then everything seems to be under review. It would be nice if, rather than reviewing things, we could have a bit of activity. If we do nothing, people will be left with less choice, further increasing the case for cremation to be the solution that is offered to everyone, and those who still opt for burial, either out of choice or due to religious conviction, are likely to be faced with considerable costs, increasing the likelihood that burials will occur outside the local area. We should buck our cultural trend and face up to the treatment of death. Other than those who, tragically, commit suicide, none of us know when we will die. The way in which we say goodbye to a loved one should be treated with the greatest possible dignity.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) on securing this debate on burial space and the treatment of death, and thank him sincerely for his kind and generous words of encouragement at the beginning of his speech.

These are important subjects and I consider it crucial that Parliament continues to have time to debate them. I am aware of the concerns of our burial and cremation stakeholders.

Burial was the only option available for people to dispose of their loved ones after death until the early 20th century, when national legislation to allow cremation was passed. Subsequently, the Roman Catholic Church has lifted its ban on the practice, and cremation has become an increasingly popular choice of funeral. As my hon. Friend said, cremation now accounts for about 70% of funerals in England and Wales. That of course means that about 30% of deaths still lead to a burial. Some 150,000 burials are carried out each year. Indeed, as my hon. Friend mentioned, for some faith groups, including Muslims, Orthodox Jews and followers of the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, burial is a religious requirement. For other faith groups, although cremation is not forbidden, burial remains a preferred option. The Government will continue to support people’s decisions to bury their loved ones after death.

In recent years, more individuals have taken greater responsibility in determining how their remains should be disposed of after death. Some have pursued what are loosely termed natural or green burials. It is worthwhile spending a moment explaining those alternatives to the conventional burial or cremation. There is now far more choice than there ever has been for people who want those alternatives. Green options include woodland burials using a cardboard, wicker or bamboo coffin. There are also natural burials, whereby the body is buried directly in the soil in a manner that allows it to decompose naturally. Ministry of Justice guidance on natural burials is available to assist operators in providing them.

Those natural or green ways of disposing of the dead are variants on conventional burial, but there are also several other methods of disposing of human remains that are more akin to cremation, in that they involve total destruction of the body. Those alternatives include promession and cryomation, which essentially involve freeze-drying the body, and alkaline hydrolysis, which involves reducing the body to a powder and liquid residue. Those processes are still relatively new, untried and untested and the Government will follow with interest the progress of trials in Europe and the United States.

I am sure that I speak for the whole House and beyond in our universal approbation and congratulations to the Minister on her new position.

May I possibly seek to influence the Minister? As one who attended the natural funeral of the late Tony Banks and saw his wickerwork coffin, plaited with ivy, being carried forward to the bosky dell, I could not help thinking that from dust we come and to dust we shall return. What happens to our body is not actually the most important thing in the world. The soul is rather more important. I would not suggest following the silver-tongued leadership of the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) and creating a whole new world of urban parks where once bodies lay and disintegrated, but I reiterate that I have utter confidence in the Minister and repeat my congratulations on her appointment.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman and will give serious thought to his important comments and observations on that type of burial.

There is currently no legislative power or duty to regulate the new processes that I described in England and Wales. They fall outside the Cremation Act 1902 because the processes concerned are not seen as constituting the burning of human remains.

I want to make it clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West that burials will, of course, continue to be an option in England and Wales. In the case of burial grounds situated in London, there is the specific legislation to which he referred—section 74 of the London Local Authorities Act 2007, which permits the reuse of graves subject to certain conditions, particularly that the last burial must have taken place more than 75 years previously. Where reuse is possible, a practice known as “lift and deepen” takes place, as he mentioned. Existing remains are lifted to deepen the grave, and the new remains are buried on top.

Indeed, the City of London corporation applied for and was granted a “faculty”, which is a special authorisation by the Church authorities, to reuse old graves in consecrated areas of the City of London cemetery in the London borough of Newham, where the last burial had taken place more than 75 years previously. Signs were placed in the area for several years explaining the intention to clear and develop it and asking people to declare an interest in the graves of their loved ones.

In 2005, the previous Government conducted a survey of burial grounds. It indicated that existing burial grounds could remain in operation for approximately 30 years on the basis of current levels of demand. Of course, it is fundamental that people should be laid to rest with dignity and respect. I am aware of the difficulties that some burial authorities are experiencing both with a shortage of burial space and in finding practical and affordable alternatives, particularly in some urban areas. However, we have not yet reached the stage where the position is critical or requires Government intervention.

Indeed, after careful consideration of all those factors, I do not consider that introducing a policy of reusing graves is critical at the moment. Nevertheless, my officials have offered help and advice to burial authorities, and guidance has been issued for burial ground managers so that they can make the best use of their cemeteries. I will, of course, continue to keep the matter under constant and careful review.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.