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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of the present practice of burial in common graves. On the other hand, there
are several disadvantages. Practically there is the objection that a common grave,
as at present used, remains unclosed generally for several days, the interval between
the first and last interment varying, in different cemeteries and at different times
of the year, from two or three days to ten days or a fortnight. During this
interval the coffins already interred lie in a partially-filled excavation covered by a
thin layer of earth, while the top of the grave is covered over by boards. In
cases where a long interval elapses between two interments the grave is often filled
in up to the surface temporarily with loose earth. From the point of view of sentiment there are
the objections (1) that a number of persons in no way connected are placed in one grave, and
(2) that relatives in some cases do not like a deep grave. The former objection is one which, it may
perhaps be said, would apply in the case of a separate grave if, after an interval of years,
it is to be again used for a common interment, but the objection would only exist
in a modified degree, since the ground would not be used again till the remains
of the previous occupant had undergone complete decay, and during the interval the immediate
relatives may have left the neighbourhood, or have given up visiting the grave. As
regards the latter, it was stated at one cemetery that it had been found necessary to reduce the depth
to which common graves were dug owing to this objection, and at others application is at times
made for a shallow grave, that is to say, for burial in a grave which has nearly received its full
complement—and at one cemetery I was informed that the desire to have a shallow
grave has led to unpleasant scenes at the grave side when more than one interment was taking
place. In such cases the intense expression of feeling appears to have been connected with religious
sentiment, but in most the explanation given to account for the preference for a
shallow grave is the belief commonly held that the relatives of the last interred
body possess a greater right to the surface of the grave than the relatives of more
deeply interred bodies. It may also be that a desire to purchase a grave at some future date, and
to remove the body to it may have some influence, since permission for such removal can no doubt
be more readily obtained in a case where the disturbance of other bodies is not involved.
(97.) In several cemeteries it is the custom to use the upper part of adult common graves for the
bodies of children, two or three coffins being placed on the same level. In others, however,
children are buried in separate common graves of a smaller size and shallower depth than the
adult grave. The reason for this is that there is an objection on the part of relatives to burying
children at a great depth.
(98.) Cemeteries belonging to Jews do not come within the above remarks. In these it is the
custom not to bury more than one body in a grave. The depth of burial is not more than 6 feet
from the surface, and the coffin must be in contact with the soil. Brickwork is at times used at
the sides of graves, but this is rather with a view to forming a support for a monument, and the
space between the brickwork and the coffin is filled in with earth. In no case is there brickwork
on the bottom of the grave. Coffins are similar in character to those used by other persons.
(99.) So far as the present practice of common interments is concerned, the existing regulations
if applied, would appear to be sufficient to prevent the practice. If, however, more superficial
burial is to be regarded as the proper mode of interment the regulation as to minimum depth
from the surface would perhaps need revision.
(100.) During the course of my inquiry I did not myself experience any nuisance.
It would appear possible, however, that the custom of interment in common graves, which
frequently are not filled and finally closed for an interval of several days, the
coffins being covered with only a small amount of earth, may lead to the passage
into the atmosphere of foul gases which are being disengaged from bodies in different stages of
decomposition enclosed in coffins which, while not being hermetically closed, are yet sufficient
to prevent the contact of the surrounding earth with the corpse, and to lessen the deodorising
action which this contact would probably have. Further, as regards cemeteries where clay exists
there is no doubt, from the statements made, that in dry weather fissures occur in the soil over
graves to a much greater depth than in a clay soil which has not been disturbed. In one cemetery
I was informed a fissure was searched and followed to a depth of 8½ feet, and in another
instance it appears that during the dry summer of 1898 unusually deep cracks occurred, and one
was followed with a probe till the underlying coffin was reached. The occurrence of such fissures
gives rise to the liability of the direct passage into the atmosphere of gases which have previously
been pent up by the impermeability of the clay soil. The re-opening of graves may also
cause nuisance in the immediate vicinity, and if the soil be of clay this would occur even after
a long period since the previous interment.
(C.) Conclusion.
(101.) The conclusion indicated by the facts set out in the foregoing part of this report is that
there would be advantage if alterations could be made in the conditions under which the burial of the
human body in the earth is at present effected. The recognition by the community of the true object
of burial, which is indicated by the preference for earthen graves rather than vaults or brick graves,
lends hope to the idea that eventually there would not be any objection to an acceptance of the view
that tenure of the ground by a corpse is, under such conditions, of a temporary nature only.
(102.) With a view to bringing about alteration in the present conditions, the following steps
might be taken—
(103.) That power be obtained to bury bodies at superficial depths with a view to the examination
of the ground at a future date.
(104.) That, if no contra-indications were forthcoming, the existing regulations should be relaxed,
with a view to allowing burial within two or three feet of the surface, provided that the nature of the
soil be suitable, and that bodies be buried in coffins made of perishable material.