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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

A burgeoning London struggles to deal with its dead

Existing graves destroyed by intense competition for burial space

Fragments of bone on top of a grave in Tottenham Park Cemetery. Locals believe graves are being dug up and reused without family permission. Gareth Browne / The National
Fragments of bone on top of a grave in Tottenham Park Cemetery. Locals believe graves are being dug up and reused without family permission. Gareth Browne / The National

As the city of London sprawls upwards and outwards, so too do its demands. The growth, has put unprecedented strain on everything from air quality to housing.

Now cracks are starting to show in another vital part of infrastructure – London’s cemeteries.

After a spate of reports that residents found bones in one north London cemetery, accusations are flying that owners are cashing in spiralling demands for scarce burial spaces.

Members of the Tottenham Park Cemetery Action Group (TPCAG) have found human remains scattered in various places throughout the cemetery on five occasions in just three months.

On a tour of the grounds on Tuesday, Munuse, 67, who is fearful of using her real name, spots a sixth. A chunk of milky white bone resting on a slab.

“We are finding bones increasingly regularly. I have to arm myself with gardening tools any time I come to visit my father’s grave – it’s not a place you feel at peace”, she adds.

A neat marble grave marks the resting place of Munuse’s mother and father. After laying a flowers, she utters a prayer, her palms up.

She is a regular visitor, tending to the family plot and doing what she can to stave off the disrepair that suffocates much of the cemetery.

But with pressure for burial space rocketing, the financial temptations to squeeze in extra grave sites is obvious.

Old headstones wedged into the perimeter fence of Tottenham Park Cemetery, where locals believe old graves are being dug up to make way for new burial sites. Gareth Browne / The National
Old headstones wedged into the perimeter fence of Tottenham Park Cemetery, where locals believe old graves are being dug up to make way for new burial sites. Gareth Browne / The National

Now dilapidated in parts, the cemetery has for decades served as the final resting place for London’s Turkish-Cypriot community. As well as the Turkic red crescent adorning many tombstones, there are Christian relics, including a decrepit stone chapel that is fenced off, its beams sagging and windows boarded up.

The recent discovery of human bones, and the mysterious disappearance of a number of other graves have left locals convinced that the cemetery’s management are digging up graves and secretly reusing burial sites.

Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, a member of the British parliament with relatives buried there, is one of those affected. “It’s been open since 1912, but they keep finding space for more and more burials. Recently, members of the community have been finding human remains. It indicates there have been exhumations and reburials improperly or unlawfully – this is the problem,” she said.

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There is evidence that new graves are being crammed into the cemetery. Paths through the cemetery have been excavated and turned into new sites, cutting off access to certain parts.

Discarded headstones lie around the edges. One is the memorial to a 3-year-old child who died in 1934 - nobody knows where the original grave site lies.

A 2013 survey by the BBC found that more than half of Britain’s burial sites could run out of space in the next 20 years, and in the capital, the pressures are even more demanding.

A 2011 study noted that an increasingly diverse population is shunning space-saving cremations, instead opting for religiously compliant burials, and the pressures have left authorities scrambling to come up with new ideas.

The premium on land space means landowners want to develop plots for luxury housing and shopping centres. Often the focus is on increasing the efficiency of Britain’s existing burial spaces.

Reusing graves is not a completely alien idea, and some have even championed it as a solution to London’s burial space crisis.

In 2016, City of London Cemetery said it had reused more than 1,500 graves, but only those over 75 years old, and not against familial objections.

Members of the TPCAG allege no such caveats nor considerations have been put in place at the Tottenham Park Cemetery. Graves are reused at the cemetery management’s whim, with original burials sometimes being all but erased from record.

It has left some grave owners scrambling to prove their relatives were ever buried in the cemetery.

The management claim much of the documentation and deeds for the graveyard, which incidentally may prove or disprove the allegations of grave reuse, were destroyed in a fire - though local authorities have no record of such an incident.

The rise in burial costs in London vastly outpace the rest of the country. The average price of a permanent burial site in the capital has more than doubled in the past 15 years.

A basic plot in Tottenham Park Cemetery currently costs £3,800 (Dh18,155), and though a 2005 report noted the site was almost full, more than 13 years later, new headstones continue to appear on a weekly basis.

The speed with which Muslim burials are carried out means that families often don’t see the burial site before the funeral. “You’re not going to turn around on the day of the burial and say you don’t like it," said Alara, 35, who is also reluctant to use her full name.

As a private cemetery, Tottenham Park Cemetery escapes some of the regulation that might otherwise protect it from such overcrowding.

“They don’t come under the same authority as local authority cemeteries – it’s very badly run, there’s no security,” said Baroness Hussein-Ece.

She adds that the cemetery’s owners, a company called Badgehurst Limited, who also own at least one other cemetery in the capital, can no longer be trusted. “We want the Ministry of Justice and local authority to try and take action and to be given powers to take action,” she said.

Running a cemetery in London, can be a largely unregulated affair, and Munuse suggests some sort of regulatory body might be the solution. “There’s comes a point when we have to say the cemetery is full, that’s a difficult decision – it means your business has ended,” she said.