The Cemeteries of Great Britain

Date Published: 
September, 1905
Original Author: 
C. Coyle
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 19th Annual Convention

Previous to 1830 the Cemeteries of note in the Three Kingdoms were few and interments were generally made in the burial grounds attached to Churches--save where interments took place in vaults beneath sacred edifices or places of Divine worship.

A considerable number of the larger Cemeteries of Great Britain are founded and worked on joint stock principles and in some districts much divergence of opinion seems to exist regarding the system. The highest rate of dividend stated to have been paid by anyone of them was 6 percent and in many cases the rate of dividend or interest paid was as low as 2 percent.

It is stated with respect to those founded and worked on joint stock principles, that there is not, that earnest desire and inclination for embellishment and improvement as there must be in the case of cemeteries established, not for the purpose of earning money for dividend paying, but with the object of supplying a public want and requirement.

There are some fairly large cemeteries, such as the Anfield Park, Liverpool, which have been established by Parishes. They originated in this way: A limited number of rate-payers of a fixed area, termed a parish, convene a meeting, pursuant to the provisions of an Act of Parliament (it may be under the Public Burial Grounds Acts, or the Public Health Act) and they resolve that it is expedient and necessary to provide a Cemetery for the parish or district. There are then certain formulae to be gone through and complied with such as an application to the Secretary of State for his sanction, etc. This having been obtained, the promoters next apply, subject to the sanction of the Treasury, to the Board of Public Works, Loan Commissioners, or other Public Department, for a loan on the security of the rates repayable by annual installments over a number of years, until the total is extinguished, of the amount estimated that will be required to purchase land for the Cemetery, including the enclosing and laying out of the grounds, drainage, and constructing one, two, or three churches, as the case may be, for the persons of different religious denominations who may be expected and are intended to make use of the Burial Grounds.

In the case of cemeteries established under these circumstances, any surplus revenue accruing, after providing a sinking fund for the purpose of extinguishing the sum borrowed, is applied towards the reduction of the rates of the parish or district and for the extension, if required, of the grounds. The governing body is composed of about nine gentlemen elected periodically by the rate-payers and the persons elected must also be rate-payers. They meet about once a week and their meetings, as a rule, are open to the public, at which reporters for the press attend.

It is required by law in England that a new burial ground, under the Burial Act, shall be divided into consecrated and unconsecrated parts. The object of this law being enacted was manifestly to prevent, if possible, the recurrence of what serious friction and religious party feeling which had on many occasions taken place in Great Britain at the burial of Dissenters and Nonconformists in cemeteries over which the dignitaries of the Church of England had control, by reason of the conditions to be observed and complied with, in the event of the religious service of the Church not being accepted or required at the interment. From time to time, with the approval of the Secretary of State, there are issued in England by the inspector under the Burial Acts, suggestions or instructions for Burial Boards providing and managing burial grounds and making arrangements for interments. These suggestions embody much that is useful regarding the site for a cemetery, the drainage and laying out of the grounds, the construction of paths and roadways, fencing and planting, size of the graves to be allotted, depth of graves, the reopening of graves, burials in vaults, the type of the intended memorials or tombs, conveyance of the dead to the burial ground, the construction of reception houses for the dead and the erection of mortuary churches in which to hold religious service.

While much may be advanced in commendation of cemeteries provided under the provisions of the different Public Burial Grounds Acts, and due acknowledgment rendered for the interesting and useful suggestions issued from the office of the Secretary of State, still the action of the governing body and executive officers of institutions so founded is in some respects much hampered. They are obliged to have every by-law, rule and regulation submitted to the Secretary of State for his sanction and his approval thereto obtained, before they can be put in force. For example, the governing body cannot fix or settle a scale of charges or fees and payments, nor make any alteration therein, without having first obtained the approval of the Secretary of State, who requires evidence to he furnished to him that the proposed by-laws, rules and regulations and the proposed scale of fees, etc., had been published in the prescribed manner, to afford an opportunity for objections being made thereto. Further, copies of same have to be affixed to the doors of all churches and chapels in the district for not less than three weeks before application is made for approval.

There are also in England, under Public Acts of Parliament, fees payable (apart from the Burial Board fees) to the incumbent, the clerk and the sexton of the parish in which the person deceased died, but singularly these fees may not be and as a fact are not, included in the scale of fees required to be published.

It is of much importance in the control and management of Burial Grounds for the Governing Body to have their own Special Act of Parliament, conferring special powers and privileges and affording them freedom of action to draw up a code of rules and regulations in pursuance of the provisions embodied in the Act and empowering them to inaugurate from time to time, as circumstances may demand and necessitate, a system of improvements, for the benefit of the institution, without hindrance or interference from any department.

With regard to Cemeteries established in England and Ireland, in the former by parishes and in the latter by poor law guardians, the practice has been that when the revenue derived from the Cemetery is not sufficient to defray the expenses, the deficiency is made good by striking or imposing a special rate on the parish or district for which the burial ground was founded.

The powers heretofore exercised in England under various Public Burial Grounds Acts by what are termed Vestries and Parish Councils and Urban Councils, in founding Cemeteries, have become partly merged and embodied in the Local Government Act of 1894; and similarly the powers exercised heretofore under Public Burial Grounds Acts by Urban Councils and Boards of Poor Law Guardians in Ireland have become merged in the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898.

A considerable divergence of opinion seems to exist in England and elsewhere regarding the size of grave space. In regulations prepared, printed and circulated by the Home Office for burial grounds provided under certain specified acts of Parliament, it is laid down that each grave space for the burial of a person above 12 years shall be at least 9 feet by 4 feet (that is to say 36 square feet) and those for burial of children under 12 years of age shall be 6 feet by 3 feet, or, if preferred, half the measurement of the adult space, namely 4½ feet by 2 feet; but in a large number of Cemeteries in Great Britain the space allotted for graves is just half of those specified. It is stated that in some Austrian Cemeteries the grave space for adults is equal to 90 square feet; at Wurtemburg it is stated that it is above 54 square feet; at Munich and Stuttgart it is said to be 32 square feet, though in many cases they are much less.

In some Cemeteries, particularly near London, graves for common interment are excavated to 25 feet. The practice has been necessitated by the scarcity and high price of land and the desire to economize space.

It can be inferred from this that owing to the limited area of Cemeteries in the Three Kingdoms, there is not much room left for embellishment or display in the way of planting and giving a park like appearance to the grounds, a feature so well calculated to please and call for the grateful appreciation of the public.

The number of Interments made annually in the Cemeteries of note of Great Britain range from about 400 to close on 6,000. Some cemeteries have a practice of contracting with a person for supplying workmen to excavate new graves; re-open graves; and execute other work in the grounds. There is a fixed charge or payment determined for each kind of work and those who have adopted the system speak of is as satisfactory. On the other hand a large number of Cemeteries decline to adopt the system, they holding that it is far more advantageous for the satisfactory working of the Cemetery and care of the grounds, to have the employees directly under the control and management of the Cemetery Authorities in Ireland, where the staff are employed by and under the absolute control and disposal of the Superintendent.

From a return made to the order of the London County Council and circulated under date 30th July 1895 and prepared by Mrs. Holmes, it appears that the burial grounds which exist in the County and City of London are 362 in number. Of these it is stated 41 are Church Yards and Cemeteries still in use; a few being burial grounds in which Interments only occasionally take place either in graves already dug or under the regulation of the Home Secretary. The other 312 are described as disused Burial Grounds, which were closed by order in Council many years previous, and 90 of which are laid out for Public Recreation Grounds, under the disused Burial Grounds Acts. The area or extent of those burial grounds varies from 1-3 acre to 69 acres.

The other Cemeteries in Ireland, besides Glasnevin, of any considerable extent and note are "Mount Jerome" and "Dean's Grange" all in the vicinity of Dublin. Belfast: The one established there by the Corporation, and the other "The Milltown Roman Catholic." Cork: "St. Finbar's", under the corporation and the one established there by the late Father Matthew, of Temperance Fame, which is under the Fathers of the Capuchin Order. Limerick: "St. Laurence Cemetery."
There is no Cemetery in the Three Kingdoms in which such a large number of Interments take place as Glasnevin--the number of burials in the year there being, on an average, 7,000.
From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 19th Annual Convention
Held at Washington, DC
September 19, 20, 21 and 22, 1905