New ways with old corpses as space in the graveyard runs out


LONDON LETTER:Cremation was once deemed the answer to the UK’s lack of cemetery space, but now the authorities are looking to more innovative technologies

THE CAMBRIDGE Crematorium, owned by the local authority, has a new business plan. Up to now, it says, the Huntingdon Road operation has not done enough to increase revenues from its thousands of clients each year.

Offering a “forward-looking” approach, bereavement services manager Tracy Lawrence has complained that Huntingdon Road, which has made £276,000 every year for the last five, sells just £44 worth of memorials to relatives, compared with £250 earned by private competitors.

The cost of cremations, she has recommended to Cambridge City Council, should at less popular times before 10am and after 4pm go up by £3, to £480, while cremations between noon and 2pm would jump by 11 per cent to £585. Services at other times during the week would rise by 7 per cent, to £565.

However, the costs of services on Saturdays and Sundays, the most popular times in cases where relatives have to travel for funerals but which are only available in Cambridge by special request, would also rise to cost £1,040 and £1,300, Ms Lawrence proposes.

Saying that both services to families and returns on future investment must be improved, she proposes the opening of a flower shop, a restaurant, an online records service and, perhaps most controversially, an area where pets could be commemorated.

Ms Lawrence is nothing if not thorough, since she has also urged councillors to be ready to introduce new methods of dealing with corpses – such as cryomation, promession and resomation – once they are approved by British authorities.

In cryomation and promession, liquid nitrogen is used to chill the body to -196 degrees until it is so brittle that it can be crushed, cleaned, and freeze-dried to remove moisture ahead of composting. No smoke, no pollution.

In resomation, which has already been licensed in some parts of the United States, the body is submerged in an alkali solution which, at 160 degrees, dissolves it in about three hours, leaving behind a green-brown liquid and a white dust.

“The end process is the same, in as much as there is a casket which can be buried or scattered or whatever, but it does not have the need for emitting furnaces. It is a very, very clean way of getting the same result,” said council official, Stuart Pryde.

Cremation was promoted aggressively by local authorities in the UK after the second World War as they struggled to provide enough graveyards. Today, three-quarters of all corpses are dealt with in this way. Jews and Muslims, however, favour traditional burials.

Cremations exceeded burials for the first time in 1968 and cremation’s popularity increased considerably in the years afterwards, though the numbers have levelled off in recent years.

The new methods of dealing with remains will have to be looked at by all crematoriums, since changes made during the 1990s to cut down on mercury emissions – derived usually from teeth fillings – have not worked as well as had been hoped.

Since the 1990s, metals such as mercury and those recovered from orthopaedic implants are collected and stored and later sent by the Institute of Cemetery Crematorium Management for recycling.

Four years ago, however, the Department of Environment warned that emissions of mercury from crematoriums would, nevertheless, rise by two-thirds between 2000 and 2020. It set down a December 2012 deadline for action on half of all cremations.

The ruling is already having effects. In Burnley, cremation charges have been increased because the local authority has had to install new £1m ovens. In Harrogate in Yorkshire, coffins have had to be stacked in public areas because the new equipment has taken up so much space.

The crematorium’s manager, Philip Andrew, says the lack of storage space has been “a real problem” since the new equipment was put in: “This is not only unacceptable but can be extremely embarrassing when trying to deliver a sensitive service in such an environment.”

The mercury problem is worst in places like Burnley, which has one of the worst dental hygiene records in the UK, where poverty is matched by large numbers of teeth-fillings, according to National Health Service figures.

The lack of space in cemeteries in the UK has long taxed the minds of local authorities and government. In London, councils warned that there were only nine years of non-denominational spaces left, with real shortages in Hackney, Islington, Lewisham and elsewhere.

A report by the Ministry of Justice in 2007 found that three-quarters of graveyards in the UK had room to accept new burials, while the others would be “fully occupied” in approximately 25 to 30 years.

Some local authorities have already resorted to using the spaces between graves, alongside paths and roads and even mounding additional earth on top of existing burials in order to create new graves to cope.

Local authorities in London and elsewhere now have powers to reclaim graves where no burial has taken place for 100 years, while some excavate long untouched graves, placing old remains in a new casket at the bottom and placing new coffins on top.