When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The dead outnumber the living, and they take up a lot of space

Despite rumours to the contrary, the dead outnumber the living. Until the Cremation Act of 1902, most people in the UK were buried. Since then, the number of cremations has crept up. In 1968, the number of cremations exceeded burials for the first time. Now, 70% of funerals are held at crematoriums.

Cremation was first introduced, against considerable opposition, as a hygienic method of disposal and a solution to the problem of over-crowded municipal cemeteries in conurbations. Some people keep ashes on their mantelpiece, but most either bury or scatter them. Scattering has led to problems, so that the government had to bring in new anti-pollution rules. Meanwhile, space for burials is still running out. However you look at it, and many would prefer not to, the problem can only get bigger. Trouble is that whenever the prospect of reusing graves is mentioned, bereaved relatives get very het up about it. Lucy Townsend has written a piece for the BBC News Magazine about the subject:
This situation is not universal. In some countries a more pragmatic approach to human remains means they have largely avoided the overcrowding issue.

In Germany, graves are reused after only 30 years, the existing remains usually being exhumed and cremated. In Australia and New Zealand, "dig and deepen" is carried out in urban areas as a matter of routine.

Tim Morris, chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, says it is time to change tack.

"It's a no-brainer," he says. "Re-use is common in lots of other countries, and was common practice in the UK until the 1850s."
Resistance to change is usual - people will refer to "traditions" that are only decades old - but when it comes to death, resistance can be expressed very emotionally and politicians will hesitate to confront it. However unpopular it is, they're going to have to.

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