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Burial Rights Reform

Volume 619: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2017

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable a person to make his or her instructions concerning burial and related matters binding on their personal representative or beneficiary; to enable a person to make provision about the use of a burial space he or she acquired while living after the person’s burial; and for connected purposes.

It has been a surprising two months for me in Parliament, because I have been talking a lot about death. It is not a subject we talk a lot about inside or outside Parliament. Given that we all die, it should be a surprise that we do not talk more about it, but apart from the times when we are near to death or personally affected by it, or when some of us plan for it in a will, death is not on the agenda. There will be an opportunity in the week of 8 May, Death Awareness Week, to talk more about death. I commend that opportunity to hon. Members. Let us hope, Mr Speaker, that that week will not coincide with the final moments of our beloved Arsenal’s ambitions.

Last month, I steered through Parliament a private Bill that gives our local New Southgate cemetery the power to reuse very old graves, and that provision will probably need to be replicated across the UK to provide sufficient space for burials. This month, my attention has been turned to burial rights by the distressing case of my constituent, Marion, and her family. They are watching this debate from the Gallery today. After Marion’s father died in 2009, her mother gave money to her sister to buy him a plot on her behalf. Unbeknown to the mother, her daughter had registered the grave in her own name and gained exclusive rights to decide who is buried there and what monument is placed on the grave.

When Marion’s mother died, she assumed ownership of her late husband’s grave and Marion was her appointed next of kin. Her dying wish was to have her ashes scattered on her late husband’s grave. It was only when Marion contacted the cemetery to make the necessary arrangements that it came to light that her sister, who is now estranged from the rest of the family, was the grave owner. She has refused to allow her mother’s ashes to be scattered on her father’s grave or even to allow a memorial stone to be erected. Marion and her family have asked me to change the law so the wishes of those like her late mother can be properly respected and not thwarted by another family member who owns the grave.

A recent high-profile case stemmed from the discovery of Richard III’s remains in 2012. A lengthy court battle ensued, with descendants of the notorious king pitted against the less notorious Lord Chancellor at that time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). The descendants’ attempt to have their ancestor laid to rest in York Minster, where he is alleged to have made plans to be buried some 550 years ago, was unsuccessful. The High Court chose to keep his body in Leicester where his remains were found, due to a lack of clearly expressed burial wishes. Given my interest in football, I could express that as a result that benefited from a home advantage: Leicester 1, York 0.

My Bill is concerned less with such high-profile cases than with the many examples that we find in all our constituencies, if we dig deep, of traumatic disputes when relatives are unable to fulfil the wishes of a departed loved one. Another example involves a constituent whose nan died leaving four daughters behind. A decision was made to put the deeds of the grave in the name of the youngest daughter. Unfortunately, she became unwell and uncontactable. So when the late nan’s sister died, having expressed a wish to be interred in the family grave, there were problems. It took six years to sort the matter out and get an updated headstone on the grave.

A grave owner should not be able to block other family members from having access to their family grave. I have read on various forums of family disputes arising from remarriage when, say, the father dies and the stepmother arranges the funeral, pays for the grave and registers ownership in her name. She gains exclusive rights to erect a memorial and pass on future use of the grave to her own family, at the exclusion of her late husband’s family.

Or there is the example of a grave plot that has been put in the name of the eldest son on the insistence of the funeral directors. The aggrieved younger sister is now concerned that, if her brother dies and is buried in the family plot, the right will pass to her sister-in-law:

“I would be left with nowhere to be buried and I don’t have any other family.”

A family in the constituency of one of the Bill’s sponsors, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), have had issues with accessing a cemetery after moving to a nearby village—the scattering and interring was bureaucratic and expensive.

The issue of a family in Sussex has also been raised with me. The affordable interment of a family member’s ashes in a grave has been refused because the relative moved out of the parish in retirement and lived 0.3 miles from the requisite boundary, despite being resident in the village for 50 years.

Finally, there is the connected issue of funeral arrangements. There are cases in which the wishes of the deceased, such as for a particular religious funeral, may be at odds with the religion or otherwise of the surviving family. As has been mentioned in the House on many occasions, there are also cases where a funeral costs too much and leads to funeral poverty, which was so well highlighted by the experience and brave campaign of the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris).

Arrangements for funerals and burials have become over-bureaucratic and expensive, and in some cases contrary to the wishes of the person who has died. We can and must do better. We cannot say that we have not been warned. In 2004 the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, said:

“Our burial law is out of date and needs reform.”

Successive Governments have looked at the issue of burial rights, but in 2007 the then Government concluded that there is public support for reform but that it is not a priority. My Bill would provide an opportunity to give clarity to relatives who are confused and aggrieved by the opaque laws on funeral and burial arrangements.

The law is clear, to the extent that dead bodies unsurprisingly have no rights. In common law there is no property in a dead body, which is described appropriately coldly as “worthless”. The overriding legal maxim is that the only lawful possessor of a corpse is the earth. Perhaps more surprising is that there are no laws governing funerals, only the disposal of bodies. Even a will setting out a person’s funeral wishes is arguably not legally binding because wills are all about property and therefore not about a dead body. Recent court cases have tried to apply the Human Rights Act 1998 to assume rights over a dead body, but the law is unclear. To follow a theme that we have no doubt heard today, it is about time that Parliament took control of the issue of burial rights or, more to the point, enabled the wishes of a person who has died to take control.

It is entirely for the person who has exclusive right of burial to decide who is buried in a grave and what memorial is placed. That normally happens without any concern and is organised by the next of kin carrying out the wishes of the deceased. The problem is that the exclusive right of burial is determined by whoever buys the lease for the grave plot. If a person’s name is not on the deed, they have no right to be buried there or to have a memorial or inscription put on the grave.

My Bill would ensure that a person’s burial wishes are properly carried out by surviving relatives and that the ownership of a grave does not lead to exclusive rights being gained by one family member to use against another family member. At present, the only answer when there is a family dispute about grave ownership is to consult a solicitor and conduct expensive litigation. However, the issue of respecting the wishes of the deceased demands a less contentious approach. My Bill would ensure that a statutory requirement is imposed on the parties involved in burial arrangements to take greater responsibility for considering the deceased’s wishes for burial arrangements and to give greater significance to any existing will or public register.

My Bill proposes a public burial register similar to the organ donation register. Such a register would allow burial wishes to be clearly identified without necessarily having a will, thereby avoiding subsequent family dispute. A clearly expressed, binding declaration of our final wishes would remove the pressures of burial-related decision making at such a testing time.

Our final wishes are arguably our most important. My Bill would help to give such wishes clarity and protection by the law. There is no better way to honour the dead than to give life to their final wishes.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for advancing this cause today, but I cannot agree with him, and I shall explain why. I have probably conducted more funerals than anybody else in this Chamber, when I was a curate at All Saints, High Wycombe. At the first funeral I did, the undertaker put his glasses in his top pocket as he leant over to let the coffin down into the grave and the glasses fell on top of the coffin, so he then had to clamber in on top. The second funeral I conducted was at the crematorium, where, unfortunately, the organist played “Smoke gets in your eyes” at the end of the service. As everybody else realised, that was somewhat inappropriate. At the last funeral I conducted the family was very divided and the ex-husband had not been invited. He suddenly appeared in the middle of the service and started shouting and screaming at me. The family all shouted, “How on earth did you get here? We locked you in the bathroom.” He said, “You didn’t lock the bathroom window, so I climbed out and down the ivy.”

I have seen a lot of funerals, so I know the pain and difficulty of which the hon. Gentleman speaks. My beef is not particularly with the remedy he is seeking, although I think that burial reform and funeral reform in general need to be conducted on the basis of a Law Commission proposal, so as to bind the whole of the legal profession and take the matter out of party political discussion. My beef is more to do with the fact that he started, as we start every ten-minute rule Bill debate, by begging leave to introduce his Bill, and I do not think we should give him that leave.

I say that for the simple reason that we have only five more Fridays when we will be sitting before the end of this Session, so any Bill will have to become law during those; it will have had to have gone through all the stages in this House and in the House of Lords, otherwise it will simply fall. There are 73 private Members’ Bills on the Order Paper already seeking a Second Reading on those five days. That is in addition to quite a lot of Bills that have already received their Second Reading, one of which, the Homelessness Reduction Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), is in Committee—I believe it will be coming out of Committee tomorrow. In the normal process, it should be the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), that then goes into Committee, followed, one would have thought, by the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill. So far, the Government have not brought forward a money resolution for that and are not saying whether they are going to let that happen.

In addition, only this week the Government have said that they have turned their back on the reforms to the private Members’ Bills process that the Procedure Committee has called for in successive years and in successive Parliaments. So the truth of the matter is that even if every element of what the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate is proposing were right, it is an act of deception for the House to send it on to its next stage, by allowing him to present his Bill, because it has absolutely no chance of getting anywhere. I make this speech for the simple reason that we could use our Friday mornings better. We should not have a system of private Members’ Bills that means we completely waste our time and deceive the public about the true process of what is happening in this House. Consequently, I say that I disagree with the hon. Gentleman but I applaud his motives.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr David Burrowes, Dr Matthew Offord, Robert Flello, Nusrat Ghani, Mr Ranil Jayawardena, Michael Tomlinson, Will Quince, Caroline Ansell, Mike Kane, Mims Davies, Frank Field and Stephen Timms present the Bill.

Mr David Burrowes accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 124).