Two marble graves are side by side. One is grey and encrusted, with moss growing over the top. The other is smooth and shiny white. It looks new but, in fact, like the grave next to it, it’s more than 100 years old. It’s not just been cleaned — its top layer has been shaved off completely. On its front are potted plants, hydrangeas and a can of Guinness. These are tributes to its new resident.

Its old resident, Robert John, died in 1894. His inscription is still there, on the back of the headstone. His remains are there, too, if they haven’t disappeared into the soil.

John’s grave is among 700 or so that have been re-used, or ‘shared’, in the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium in east London. They are all at least 75 years old. Any remains that are found are put in a hessian sack and reburied. A chatty porter admits it’s ‘a bit controversial’. ‘Not everyone is happy with it,’ he says.

The re-use of a grave is extremely rare in Britain. It is allowed in London, but not generally elsewhere. The Ministry of Justice won’t approve it. But the people who run them believe it’s the only way they can safeguard their cemeteries’ future.

And it’s slowly becoming more common. The London borough of Enfield has recently started the practice. Southwark and Westminster are considering it.

Gary Burks, the superintendent in charge of the cemetery, run by the City of London Corporation, is giving me a tour. He is burly and shaven-headed and a bit East End. He claims that over the past ten years people have become more accepting of re-use. ‘We spell out the choices to everyone. There are no secrets.’ Some families, he says, even go ‘shopping for themselves’, selecting the grave they will be buried in.

Burks knows the place quite well. He’s worked here for 28 years. He used to dig the graves and mow the lawn. Before that, his father was a gravedigger here, and his family lived on site — he moved into the cemetery when he was seven. ‘I don’t tend to get lost,’ he says.

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As we drive round, he rattles off statistics. There are 25,000 roses. Seven miles of roads; 150,000 burials. It opened in 1856 and is beautiful, with huge tree-lined driveways.

Before the cemetery re-uses any of its graves, it has to announce that it is doing so, with public notices in the cemetery and adverts in papers. It tries to contact the families of those buried there, who have the right to veto any re-use for a generation. Recently, the cemetery claimed 200 graves for re-use. Only one family wrote back saying they did not want the grave disturbed.

We go back to Burks’s office and I ask him what the alternative to re-use would be. He looks slightly angry. ‘It depends how much damage I do to the heritage value of the site,’ he says. To cram in more graves he would have to ‘rip up the trees or the shrubbery or the planted areas’. One cemetery nearby, he explains, ‘dug up all its roads’. He is appalled. ‘It undermines everything that a cemetery is about.’

On the other hand, if the City of London cemetery stopped burying people, its income would be cut by a third, and ‘maintenance standards would fall very suddenly’, says Burks. (Much of its income is from its two crematoria.)

Every cemetery in Britain faces the same dilemma, if not now then in three or ten or possibly 30 years’ time. They are all filling up; in central London they are full already.  The industry body, the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, has been pressing governments for years to allow re-use of graves older than 100 years. In 2007 Labour approved the idea in principle. It forgot about it, though, as the election neared. The coalition has since ignored the problem. Tim Morris, the institute’s chief executive, is exasperated. ‘We were almost there with Labour,’ he says.

The thing is, most cemeteries in England can re-use some of their graves. If part of the ground is consecrated, they can bypass the government and just make a deal with their Anglican diocese. But they don’t.

‘It’s a bit worrying,’ says Morris. It’s partly because of paperwork, he says, and partly ‘waiting to see how the pioneers are getting on’.

All the institute wants, Morris says, is a system like that in Australia, New Zealand and Europe. In Germany, for instance, graves are re-used after only 20 years.

He blames Britain’s approach on the Victorians. Before the 1850s, small churchyards always re-used their oldest graves. But then London stopped being able to cope with its dead. Bodies were crammed into churchyards that were already full. Recent burials were pulled out of the ground to make way for new ones. Horror at these conditions led to the Burial Acts, one of which, passed in 1857, forbade graves being exhumed for re-use.

That law has remained unchanged for 150 years. But in the end it might be irrelevant. The Church of England, says Morris, has drafted legislation to allow re-use of graves throughout the country. And for graves in consecrated ground, it has full power — so no need to gain approval from the government.

The trouble is, Morris argues, we can’t just build more cemeteries. Keeping them up would become more expensive, while the income — the number of people dying — stays the same. And the private sector is no use either, apparently. Businesses, says Morris, are only interested in crematoria, which are very profitable. Cemeteries just get bigger and more expensive to run.

Ian Dungavell, chief executive of Highgate Cemetery in north London, is in favour of re-use even though his cemetery relies on money from visitors, not burials. He says cemeteries are ‘animated by grief and loss’. They rely on a connection with the neighbourhood. ‘The more they get separated from the local community the more irrelevant they become,’ he says. A cemetery that is no longer functioning is just ‘a park with stones in it’. Re-use would allow a cemetery to function indefinitely, he says. (Otherwise, Highgate will run out of burial space in ten years or so.)

Burks, too, sees his cemetery as enduring for many generations. In his 28 years there he may have got older, he says, but the site hasn’t changed. ‘I’ll be moving along before anything is done differently,’ he says. ‘I grew up here, but I’m still just passing through.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Cemeteries, City of London, Death, History, London, Mourning