London's Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports 1848-1972

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London County Council 1900

[Report of the Medical Officer of Health for London County Council]

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Without the county.

No. of cemeteries.Total area.Area unused.
Partly clay4294195
Gravel and sand7782562

(18.) The above may be taken as fairly representing the amount of virgin ground available for
interment in cemeteries and burial grounds in and near the county of London, that is
to say, ground which has been approved under special Acts of Parliament or under the various
regulations applicable to burial grounds established since the passing of the first Burial Act in
1852, as being suitable for the purpose of burying the dead.
(19.) An estimate of the probable duration of each cemetery under the existing recognised
modes of use of the ground for burial might be formed by taking into consideration
the number of burials per annum, the proportion of private to common graves per
annum, and the area of grave spaces, and by allowing an average number of bodies to each grave.
This would give the amount of ground which would be used each year, and from this the life of
the burial place, so far as new graves are concerned, could be calculated.
(20.) The information obtainable as to .each of the above factors, and especially as regards the
proportion of common to private graves, and the average number to each grave, is not sufficiently
precise to justify an expectation that such an estimate would be so near the truth as to enable a
satisfactory opinion being formed as to whether it is necessary to make other provision for the
burial of persons dying in London.
(2l.) This is the less important, however, since there appears to be reason for thinking that
such an estimate would not, for practical purposes, be of any great utility owing to the fact that
it would be largely based on the assumption that the past mode of use of the ground will necessarily
continue in the future.
(22.) Now the regulations made under the Burial Acts of 1852, and the revision of them at
present in force, are so framed as to recognise two distinct modes of burial, namely, entombment
or the placing of the body in a brick grave, or vault, or mausoleum in a hermetically-sealed coffin
with a view to its preservation, and inhumation or burial in the earth with a view to its decay.
(23.) During the early periods of the existing cemeteries it was largely the custom to adopt the
former of these methods of interment, but it is stated that during recent years a
change has taken place in the views of the community and earthen graves are
much more often chosen than brick graves, or their equivalents, namely, vaults,
mausoleums above ground, or catacombs. The statements made regarding
this point during the inquiry were practically unanimous, and it does not appear that the
change of opinion is based upon the possible less expense involved by burial in an earth grave,
but is due to an appreciation by the public that the proper object of burial is the decay of the
body, and that the result of attempt at preservation by means of entombment is only a temporary
delay in the process of decomposition.
(24.) The change in opinion on the part of the community may reasonably be regarded
as opening up the possibility of abandoning, in part, if not entirely, the present mode of use
of ground set aside for interment, the essence of which is the filling up of
graves both private and common with a certain number of bodies and never again
disturbing them, and adopting a system which will allow, after a given interval, the use of the
same ground over again for purposes of burial. Such a system would minimise if it did
not entirely overcome the difficulty which threatens of continually increasing appropriation of
land to provide for the burial of an increasing population. It may be added that the continued
re-use of the same grave, after sufficient intervals of time between successive interments to permit
complete decay, seems to be implied in the regulations made under the Burial Acts in which it is
laid down that a grave shall not be used a second time—except for a member of the same family,
that is practically private graves—until after an interval of 14 years, though the context, that a
foot of earth shall be left over the last interred coffin, appears to indicate that the number of
bodies for which any one common grave space is to be used is limited.
(25.) If the present desire for burial in the earth, in place of entombment with the object of
preservation of the remains, be regarded as sufficient to justify the consideration of making some
alteration in the use of the land on the lines set out above, an estimate of the availability of the
existing cemeteries and burial grounds can be made much more readily than under existing
methods, and with a considerably greater degree of preciseness. As use of the ground in the
manner suggested above has many advantages in comparison with the present mode, the estimate
given in the following has been made in this way.
(26.) Before proceeding to give such estimate it is desirable here to digress in order to see whether
the object which, as far as can be gathered, underlies the change in opinion of the community—namely
burial in such a manner as shall ensure a complete decay of the corpse within a reasonably short
period—is or is not attained under the conditions of burial which prevail at the present time.
(27.) The evidence which has been obtained in regard to this point leaves little reason for doubt,