Skip to main content

Private Burial Grounds

Volume 791: debated on Monday 18 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review legislation to bring private burial grounds in line with cemeteries and burial grounds regulated by statute.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare an interest as a member of the Tottenham Park cemetery charitable trust, which is run by families of the privately run cemetery where my own family members are buried.

My Lords, the Government have agreed that the Law Commission should include a project aimed at streamlining and modernising the law governing the disposal of human remains in its current programme of law reform. Further details of the project and its start date will be announced by the Law Commission.

Is the Minister aware that privately run burial grounds remain unregulated in law and are only loosely governed by guidelines? Is he further aware that they are often left to unscrupulous owners, as I have discovered in my own case, with no requirements for a licence or any maintenance, and that there is evidence of unlawful burials, reburials, exhumations and, in this instance, a Victorian listed chapel left to fall into ruin? The local authority, the police or any other body have little power of enforcement. Will the Government take action to ensure that these burial grounds are regulated by statute, as is the case in Scotland, and end this scandal?

My Lords, I entirely accept the noble Baroness’s observation on the limited regulation of private burial grounds in England. That is why we have agreed that the Law Commission should have a project aimed at addressing this matter. The present regulation, such as it is, goes back to a series of statutes between 1852 and 1857 and is of limited utility today. The London Borough of Enfield has acted on health and safety concerns reported at the cemetery referred to by the noble Baroness, and following an inspection by council inspectors, a temporary closure notice was placed on the site so that necessary repairs could be carried out.

My Lords, what is the current position regarding the policy of the north London coroner, Mary Hassell, of refusing to facilitate prompt funerals in accordance with Jewish and Muslim practice, following the High Court ruling that her policy is discriminatory and unlawful? I ought to declare a potential posthumous interest.

I deeply regret that the noble Lord’s interest is posthumous. I am not in a position to answer the specific point raised by the noble Lord, but I will write to him and place a copy of the letter in the Library.

My Lords, what is the policy of the Government in issuing licences under these Victorian burial Acts which permit the digging up of bodies in order to hold new burials? For how long must a person be buried before his remains are exhumed? How many licences have been issued, and have there been any prosecutions?

My Lords, as regards private burial grounds, the removal of a body from a burial ground would be an offence pursuant to Section 25(1) of the Burial Act 1857, unless there was a statutory consent for such removal.

My Lords, the noble Baroness drew attention to a particularly disturbing example, but can my noble and learned friend tell the House how many private burial grounds there are in this country and whether he has reason to suppose that the circumstances that she described are replicated elsewhere?

My Lords, I am not in a position to give even an estimate of the number of private burial grounds in the country at present, but I will make inquiries as to whether those figures are available to the Government. In the event that they are, I undertake to write to my noble friend and place a copy of the letter in the Library.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us when last there was a prosecution under the section he quoted from the 1857 Act?

Does the Minister accept that in the past I have had a particular interest in this because one of my ancestors was buried in an Egyptian sarcophagus? When efforts were made by respected members of the public to recover the sarcophagus, it could not be found. Perhaps I may say that where private sector measures impact on the public sector, it can often give rise to offence if it means interfering with other graves.

I am obliged to my noble friend for his question. I am not aware of the present whereabouts of the sarcophagus in question.