Grave cri­sis

Lon­don’s crowded un­der­ground: Ceme­tery urges strangers to share dou­ble-decker graves

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - Front Page - BY JILL LAW­LESS

Lon­don’s un­der­ground get­ting crowded.

LON­DON — So you think Lon­don, pop­u­la­tion eight mil­lion, is crowded with the liv­ing? There are many mil­lions more un­der the soil of a city that has been in­hab­ited for 2,000 years.

And Lon­don is rapidly run­ning out of places to put them. Now the city’s largest ceme­tery is try­ing to per­suade Lon­don­ers to share a grave with a stranger.

“A lot of peo­ple say, ‘I’m not putting my Dad in a sec­ond­hand grave’,’’ said Gary Burks, su­per­in­ten­dent and reg­is­trar of the City of Lon­don Ceme­tery, fi­nal rest­ing place of close to 1 mil­lion Lon­don­ers. “ You have to deal with that mind­set.”

The prob­lem is a very Bri­tish one. Many other Euro­pean coun­tries reg­u­larly re­use old graves af­ter a cou­ple of decades. Bri­tain does not, as a re­sult of Vic­to­rian hy­giene ob­ses­sion, piece­meal reg­u­la­tion and na­tional tra­di­tion. For many, an English­man’s tomb, like his home, is his cas­tle.

That view is also com­mon in the United States, which like Bri­tain tends to re­gard graves as eter­nal and not to be dis­turbed — al­though the U.S. has a lot more space, so the burial cri­sis is less acute.

In much of Bri­tain, reusing old graves re­mains il­le­gal, but the City of Lon­don ceme­tery is ex­ploit­ing a le­gal loop­hole that al­lows graves in the cap­i­tal with re­main­ing space in them to be re­claimed af­ter 75 years.

Burks points to a hand­some mar­ble obelisk car­ry­ing the de­tails of the re­cently de­parted man buried un­der­neath. The name of a Vic­to­rian Lon­doner in­terred in the same plot is in­scribed on the other side. The mon­u­ment has sim­ply been turned around for its new user — whose fam­ily, Burks says, got a fancy stone mon­u­ment for much less than the mar­ket price by agree­ing to share.

Since a change in the law last year, ceme­tery staff have be­gun the even more sen­si­tive process of dig­ging up old re­mains, re­bury­ing them deeper and putting new corpses on top, in what have been dubbed “dou­bledecker” graves. They’ll be sold for the same price as the ceme­tery’s reg­u­lar “ lawn” graves — those in open grassy ar­eas — or about $3,200.

Burks, a burly man who be­gan work­ing at the ceme­tery as a grounds­man and gravedig­ger al­most 25 years ago, said reusing graves will buy the rapidly fill­ing ceme- tery six or seven more years of buri­als.

“ We are do­ing our damnedest to make the ceme­tery more sus­tain­able,” he said.

So far, no other ceme­ter­ies have fol­lowed City of Lon­don in reusing graves. Many Bri­tons have an in­stinc­tive re­sis­tance to the idea of grave-shar­ing.

“I don’t even want to think about it,” said 29-yearold Lon­don re­cep­tion­ist Temi Oshi­nowo. “It’s not show­ing re­spect. It doesn’t mat­ter whether or not the per­son has been buried for 25 years or 100 years, that is their space and you should give them re­spect.”

Martina Posse­doni, a 23year-old sales­woman, agreed.

“It’s like a sec­ond home and it’s weird to think a stranger is in your home with you,” she said.

It’s an at­ti­tude that frus­trates ad­vo­cates of grave re­use. Julie Rugg of the Ceme­tery Re­search Group at the Uni­ver­sity of York in north­ern Eng­land jokes that Bri­tain’s prob­lem is that “we weren’t in­vaded by Napoleon.” Coun­tries that adopted the Napoleonic Code have been reusing graves for al­most 200 years.

“ We just need to get on with reusing graves,” Rugg said. “Grave re­use gifts back to us our Vic­to­rian ceme­ter­ies to use again.”

Bri­tain, a crowded is­land, has long bat­tled to find room for its de­parted res­i­dents. Over the cen­turies they have been packed into mass graves, tucked into church­yards and laid out in sprawl­ing ceme­ter­ies. Lon­don is like a layer cake of the dead: Vic­to­rian upon Me­dieval upon Saxon upon Ro­man.

Construction work­ers fre­quently find re­mains dat­ing back cen­turies. Work­ers build­ing venues for the 2012 Olympic Games have un­earthed 3,000-year-old Iron Age skele­tons as well as Ro­man and Me­dieval ar­ti­facts.

For cen­turies Lon­don­ers were buried in churches or small church­yard ceme­ter­ies, but when the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion brought a pop­u­la­tion boom, the ex­ist­ing spa­ces couldn’t cope.

Alarmed at the per­ceived health risks of over­flow­ing grave­yards, the gov­ern­ment passed laws start­ing in the Vic­to­rian era that banned ur­ban church­yard buri­als, out­lawed ex­huma­tion without gov­ern­ment per­mis­sion and es­tab­lished large mu­nic­i­pal ceme­ter­ies.

As­so­ci­ated Press photo

This is an im­age taken Mon­day of su­per­in­ten­dent and reg­is­trar of the City of Lon­don Ceme­tery Gary Burks as he stands by a reused burial plot at the City of Lon­don Ceme­tery & Cre­ma­to­rium in east Lon­don.

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