The BBC has an interesting article today about re-using old graves, one proposed solution to the chronic shortage of burial space in the UK, and in London in particular. The City of London Cemetery has been doing this: grave owners have been contacted about graves which have not been used for 75 years or more, which were known to have space for two more burials. At least 30 of the newly-available plots have now been chosen as someone's final resting place.
Personally I rather like this idea. It's preferable to all the alternatives: cramming new graves into space that was once chapel or pathway, cutting down trees, or creating ever more cemeteries. London authorities have had the power since 2007 to "lift and deepen": remove old remains from a grave, dig it deeper, and then replace them together with new burials. But no one's yet used those powers: I think Gary Burks, Superintendant of the City of London Cemetery, is right when he says that "everyone is waiting for someone else to do it. Nobody wants to be the one in front of the camera when it happens."
But actually, I don't think there'll be a fuss. 75 years is a long time; the chance that someone is still visiting the grave is small. Memorials are being preserved (apparently); nothing is being lost, only added to.
And what no one else seems to be saying is that this may, in fact, be the preserver of our cemeteries. The early twentieth century, when the first Victorian cemeteries were filled and couldn't accept any more burials, is full of stories of financial crisis. The simple bottom line is that if cemeteries stop accepting people for burial, their major revenue stream is gone. If we can keep that money going for another 30 or 50 or 100 years, we stand a chance of averting the crisis in our own time.
But what I really loved about this story was Mr Burks' anecdote about when the re-use story first broke:
On one occasion, an Irish lady did get in touch to say 'are you going to reuse my grave, then?' After it was explained she said "Well, that's fine, I don't mind what you do once I'm dead.'