A grave shortage

Burials are at an all time low but the need for burial space is at a premium. Neil Hudson discovered how Leeds City Council is tackling the problem – in one case by buying an American Football pitch.

It's a touchy subject, death.

But, like taxes, it happens to us all.

When it does, we'll either be cremated or buried. The number of people being buried has dropped massively over the last hundred years and continues to fall as more people opt for cremation.

Despite this, the need to find new space to bury people has never been greater.

In December 2008, council chiefs in Leeds were given the dire warning that burial space in the city would run out in just 15 years.

A report was drawn up to suggest a solution to this looming crisis. It proposed creating a super-cemetery at Whinmoor but the issue became political and the plans were scrapped in favour of several, smaller, cemetery extensions.

Just over a year on and Leeds City Council is in the process of quietly implementing those plans, part of which involves buying an American Football pitch next to Lawnswood Cemetery.

Coun John Procter (Con, Wetherby), who is executive member for leisure, said: "One of the major problems the council faces – and it's a problem which is common to local authorities across the country – is the amount of burial space available.

"We've been looking for a number of years at how to solve the problem by creating additional burial space.

"It's a controversial subject because it's a service we have to provide but at the same time it's very expensive, in terms of buying the land, maintaining the graves and the land and so on.

"There are plenty of examples in Leeds where the maintenance of graveyards has declined. Another problem we have is that the law says that when church graveyards are full, they are allowed to hand over the upkeep of them to the local authority. That's an area which needs addressing nationally by government.

"There's also the question of how many years a grave should be used for. Do we have the right to dig up graves and relocate them, or dig them deeper?

"People are rightly concerned about the upkeep of graveyards."

In 2009, there were 1,284 burials, compared to 5,343 cremations and the average cost of a funeral in the UK was 2,549.

A report to Leeds City Council in December 2008 said that around 540 new graves were being brought into use every year, meaning it would need to provide 27,100 new graves up to 2058.

Taking into account available land, that meant a shortfall of space equivalent to just over 10,000 graves. In order to meet this demand, the council would need to find between nine and 22 acres of new burial space.

To create this space, the council plans to buy land used as an American Football pitch, currently owned by Leeds University, in order to extend Lawnswood Cemetery. It will use compulsory purchase powers if necessary. Originally, it planned to secure 14 acres but the cost of doing so – 7.7m – was considered excessive and so a new scheme was drawn up to secure 3.8 acres at a cost of around 1.75m, creating an additional 3,000 burial plots. Talks were said to be "progressing".

Work has already been completed at Harehills Cemetery, creating an additional 250 burial plots, extending its provision by at least five years.

Garforth Cemetery has also been extended, creating an additional 1,460 burial plots and planning permission has been approved for works at Kippax Cemetery where it is hoped work will begin on a 0.3 acre extension in June, creating an extra 240 burial plots.

The council is also looking to create a new five-acre burial site at Elmet and plans are due to be submitted this year.

Several other sites are also under consideration.

Funeral director Adrian Benson, of Benson's Funeral Directors, said: "More people are cremated today than are buried and there are a number of reasons why. People tend to follow what relatives have done previously. Another factor is cost. It's a lot cheaper to be cremated. For a typical burial, you are talking about 3,500, whereas a cremation will cost about 2,400, depending on what you have.

"I am aware that the council is looking to buy back land to make more grave space. At the end of the day, councils will always do that.

"Funeral costs have risen recently and part of that must be the acquisition of new land."

trolley-dashed: The NGT New Generation Transport scheme was scrapped last year

Aisha Iqbal: Let’s all have our say on Leeds’s ‘son of trolleybus’ plans