Can Cemeteries Be a Tool for Equity?


- 4 minute read -

The English city of Bristol is running out of space to bury their dead. The city’s eight public cemeteries are on track to be full in about two years.

And Bristol is not alone. As the population becomes more urban, many cities in the land-limited island nation of the United Kingdom are critically low on burial space. Four of London’s 12 boroughs have no remaining burial space. A recent study estimated that Cardiff, the largest city in Wales, will run out of post-mortem real estate by June 2020.

The UK is running out of space for the dead.

The UK is running out of space for the dead.

Many UK cities have a critical need for new housing and infrastructure for the living, so it’s easy to put space for the dead low on the list of priorities for urban land use. After all, the United Kingdom has a cremation rate of over 75%, among the highest in the world. And there are no laws mandating that ashes be placed in a cemetery. (The notably beautiful Lake District of Northern England has become such a destination for those scattering ashes that the nutrients of the remains have reportedly altered the ecosystem’s topsoil.) And with so many ways to digitally document and preserve memories of the dead, it’s easy to think of cemeteries as a relic of the past.

So, why does it matter if we run out of burial space? Well, advocating for cemeteries isn’t just the domain of historians and genealogists. As a country with increasing religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity, cemetery planning has also become the domain of a select few community organizers with an eye toward inclusion.

Ariaf Hussain is a community-organizer-turned-cemetery-manager. In his previous positions, he educated community members on how to self-advocate for an array of municipal services. Now, he’s on the side of providing the services, managing all of the Bristol City Council’s eight public cemeteries and two public crematories. He sees his work in the cemeteries as an extension of his community work—a matter of equity. “We do have a growing population within Bristol [whose] religious preference is that they are buried and not cremated… We want to make sure that we provide a service to all our communities.”

Ariaf Hussain, manager of the Bristol City Council’s Cemeteries and Crematories, stands in a new cremation burial section at South Bristol Cemetery. He expects this section to be full by June 2019.

Ariaf Hussain, manager of the Bristol City Council’s Cemeteries and Crematories, stands in a new cremation burial section at South Bristol Cemetery. He expects this section to be full by June 2019.

The majority of cemetery services in the UK are provided by local municipalities. This year, a team of urban planners from the University of Reading and University of the West of England examined burial provisions in multiple towns in a study called “Deathscapes and Diversity.” After finding that most towns surveyed had inadequate burial provisions for their diverse populations, the team put forth a list of policy recommendations, and argued that offering suitable funerary accommodations is essential to making the UK more welcoming for the living.

“To be an accepting and multicultural society, we need to provide spaces so that people can fulfill their requirements for the entire life—and death—cycle,” says Katie McClymont, one of the urban planners who worked on the project. According to the public report, the “[i]nability to fulfill religious and cultural requirements for the dead leaves mourners feeling misunderstood, marginalised and anxious on behalf of the deceased”—a combination of experiences pretty antithetical to inclusion. But when a local council can provide these provisions, there is a mutual benefit; according to McClymont, “if public cemeteries can meet the diverse needs of local populations in terms of timely services and memorialisations, [the cemeteries] act as physical markers of an area’s diversity and acknowledge the multiple ways of belonging in that area.”

As McClymont suggests, it takes more than just adequate space to make cemeteries welcoming. Funeral services and cemetery design must also be taken into consideration.

Ariaf Hussain agrees. “If we are to provide a new cemetery, do we make it look like a Victorian cemetery? Well, we’re no longer in Victorian times,” Hussain explains. “We’ve touched upon a more diverse community…and our cemeteries need to reflect that.” One of the ways contemporary cemeteries designers do this is by making less use Christian imagery—so common in Victorian cemeteries—in shared spaces like chapels and memorial gardens. Deviating from the grand statuary of the Victorian cemetery also makes contemporary cemeteries more financially accessible. Today funerary debt is at an all-time high, with 1 in 6 UK citizens struggling to pay basic funeral costs; removing the pressure of erecting a large monument is a welcome relief to many.

“Curb set” graves, like those seen above, can cost ₤9k-10k today.

“Curb set” graves, like those seen above, can cost ₤9k-10k today.

Hussain also notes that most Victorian cemeteries are minimally accessible to people experiencing limited mobility. Staff at Bristol Cemeteries & Crematories have widened and paved paths in some of their existing sites; newly developed cemetery sections have been built with adequate width for wheelchair users to access graves.

Underpinning the work of both McClymont and Hussain is the crucial awareness of personal preference—even within broader cultural mandates. How we choose to remember the dead may be culturally or religiously-informed, but is ultimately a highly individual decision. “I think it’s a very personal thing… We’ve got people who’ve been coming for 30 years, 40 years because of the loss that they’ve had. And that’s absolutely the right way for them to deal with it. But there are going to be those other people that…don’t want to go and visit that space because of what it represents. There could be something else that we create that allows them to come and have that ability [to grieve].”

Graveyards aren’t often a topic of public conversation. And when they are, they are largely considered historic attractions, with an emphasis on Victorian cemeteries and grandiose monuments therein. And the historic value of cemeteries is not to be overlooked; as I discuss in my article “Why Cemeteries Tell Us More About the Living than the Dead,” graveyards are artistic treasure troves that give us crucial insight into the cultural priorities of bygone eras. But if we fail to evolve cemeteries for our current realities, future “tombstone tourists” will see evidence of an inequitable society. In order to better serve diversifying populations, we need to expand the focus from preservation to adaptation.

Hear the companion piece to this story - Sound Memories: Ariaf


Katie Thornton Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow Audio Death in the Digital Age Cemeteries Headshot Small

Katie Thornton is a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow currently in the UK and Singapore to produce “Death in the Digital Age,” a podcast and multimedia project about how and where we remember in an urbanized, digitized world. Be sure to follow the project on Instagram, via occasional email updates, or on the project blog!


UK Department of Environment, Rural Population 2014/2015

University of York, An Audit of London Burial Provision

Urns for Ashes, Cremation Statistics

University of Reading, Deathscapes and Diversity: Briefing Note

Royal London, A False Dawn


Disclaimer: All photos taken by Katie Thornton, 2018. No reuse without permission.

Kathleen ThorntonComment