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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A special set of regulations exists now which differs from all the above—(1) in not defining the area of grave,
but each must be one foot from another; (2) more than one body can be buried in a grave on same day if one foot
of earth be put in and rammed down never to be disturbed, and if bodies be those of members of the same family.
(89.) The method of burial in the cemeteries which have been visited (excluding those belonging
to the Jewish community) may conveniently be considered as regards private or ■purchased
graves and common or unpurchased graves.
(90.) In the case of the former, when an interment is to be made for the first time the grave is
dug upon the site selected to a depth varying according to the number of bodies which the purchaser
anticipates it will be used for, and when an interment has been made the grave is forthwith
filled up to the level of the ground, and afterwards, if the relatives so desire, they are
allowed to place a headstone or other form of monument over the grave. When the grave is
needed for a second or third interment, it is re-opened to within a short distance of the last
interred coffin, with the object of leaving undisturbed the interval of earth prescribed by the
regulations. It appears, however, from statements made during the inquiry, that at some
cemeteries, owing to the demand of relatives, it is necessary to expose either the entire coffin last
interred or the coffin plate, otherwise complaint is made that the wrong grave has been opened,
or that some other person has been buried in it during the interval which has elapsed since the
last interment.
(91.) For the purpose of common interments, the practice now in vogue in most cemeteries is to
have ready for use a number of graves varying in depth from 10 to 20 feet. These are generally
dug in a row side by side or end to end in a special part of the burial ground, or cemetery, and it
is generally found that all the open graves are in use at the same period so as to avoid the
necessity of keeping one burial waiting until another has been completed when
there is more than one on the same day and at the same time. In such cases
a common interment service may be held over two or more bodies in the chapel and at the grave
side, if the graves be close to one another. Arrangements, however, exist at those cemeteries
where many common interments take place, to have burial services at fixed intervals—about
every ½ to 1 hour—during the afternoon (no burials taking place in the morning except when
special fees are paid), and by this arrangement the same grave may be used more than once on
the same day, the previously interred coffin being covered with earth before another is buried.
As regards two cemeteries, however, it was stated that more than one burial in the same grave on
the same day was prohibited by special regulation. Common graves are similar in size and shape
to ordinary private graves. No such thing as an excavation sufficiently large in area to admit
more than one adult coffin at the same level was met during the inquiry. They only differ in
appearance from private graves, in that the latter are usually solitary openings, whereas the
common grave forms one of a number in a part of the ground specially set apart for the purpose,
but each grave is separated from the other by an interval of earth. This collection in one spot of
a number of graves leads often to an untidy appearance of the immediate surroundings—which is
absent in the case of the private grave—owing to presence of the bank of earth which has been
(92.) In use, common graves differ from private graves in that a number of persons, in no
way connected, are interred in each, and that the grave is not finally closed until it has received
its full complement of bodies.
(93.) The use of a common grave in this way—that is, delaying the final closure till it is filled
with coffins—is common in all the cemeteries. Originally when parochial cemeteries were first
provided in place of the old churchyards, it appears to have been the custom in many of them
to fill up a common grave at once after one interment, each body being given what is termed a
" churchyard grave." The present practice of using common graves as a recognised method
appears to have arisen upon an application to the Home Secretary by a parochial burial board in
1858. As a result of this application an inquiry was made on behalf of the Home Secretary into
the local circumstances, with the result that the regulation, that only one body shall be buried in
the same grave at one time, was relaxed, subject, however, to the following condition, which was
set out in the letter from the Home Secretary to the local authority, namely, "provided that
every coffin is immediately covered with soil one foot in thickness, and the soil closely rammed
down, and that no common grave in which several bodies have been buried is ever again reopened."
Precedent apparently being thus established, the custom has been adopted in other
cemeteries, as the population of the district for which the cemetery provides, and as the number of
interments have increased, the objects being the economical use of the ground, and saving in the
labour and time necessitated by the frequent opening of the ground.
(94.) As regards economy of space, if burial in the earth, carried out as has been
suggested earlier in the report, allows the ground to be used over and over
again after a given interval, the above method—that is, one which prevents any
further use at any time of the ground occupied by common graves—is not the most economical.
During the inquiry, ground was seen which, originally used for the burial of one body only in a
common grave, was now again available for burial, an interval of 14 years, as required by the
regulations, having elapsed since its previous use, and in some cases such ground was again being
utilised. If burial had been effected in the manner suggested, i.e., one body in a grave, within a
few feet of the surface, and with perishable coffins, a shorter interval of time would probably
have sufficed.
(95.) As regards economy of labour and time there is much probability that this is effected by
the present custom, since the digging of a separate grave for each body would involve, in order
to comply with the regulation requiring 4 feet of earth to be left between the surface and the
coffin, a minimum excavation for each interment of 6 feet or so.
(96.) This, however, appears to be the only thing which can be said in favour