Case study: Cemeteries in London

e-learning centre on sustainable development


Urban Green Space

Cemeteries in London

(Judith Fienieg)

A sustainable development project that you probably have not thought about is the development of a cemetery.

In the big metropolis called London, population growth and land price increases have gone hand in hand. The city continues to grow unsustainably, putting pressure to develop every piece of vacant land, in particular for moneymaking uses such as housing and office buildings. Luckily, governmental and non-governmental pressure groups made sure some of the land was also developed into, for example, parkland and sports facilities.

Unfortunately, the need of those people whose voice was no longer heard was neglected, i.e. the voices of the dead. London is rapidly running out of burial space. Some areas no longer accept burials, and other areas have no plan whatsoever to assign new sites as cemeteries, with grave space running out in a few years time. We seem to live in a time where – when space is in short supply - improving our personal living conditions is preferred over some of our more spiritual needs such as respecting the wishes of the person that has died.

Many people will not flag this issue as being important, assuming that burials are a thing of the past. We all should opt for much cheaper and more efficient cremations. However, this viewpoint does not take into considerations that many cultures and religions such as the Bahá’ís prefer burials very strongly. A cemetery outside of London is not an option for those who wish to bury their loved ones in the same area where they grew up or lived for a long time. Neither is it an option for Bahá’ís, who believe that the dead should be buried no longer than one hour's travel from the place where they died (please note, it takes a full hour to drive to the perimeters of London alone from some parts).

In 2001, a Cemeteries Strategy was commissioned, following a pan-London report prepared by the London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC) on the diminishing burial space in London. One local authority of East London set up a Cemetery Strategy, outlining the options open to the Council. It put forward a series of proposals, which included consulting with residents as to whether a new cemetery/cemetery extension was something they wanted their council to spend its money on. The overwhelming majority of those residents consulted requested additional space for the deceased.

The site chosen was a derelict piece of land which at some time was used for gravel extraction, and was later contaminated with landfill debris, most of which came from World War II bomb-damaged buildings from elsewhere in the London area. The landfill site was then declared unsuitable for redevelopment, due to contamination and due to unstable conditions for buildings.

The local authority is now in the process of cleaning up the site. The development will include a detailed remediation scheme of excavation, partial landfilling and partial recycling of soil by sorting and cleaning on-site. After this inspection and clean-up process is complete, a new cover layer of soil will be placed in order to complete the process of "making the site suitable for use" and therefore safe for grave diggers, cemetery visitors and park visitors. After the earthworks are complete, the site will be landscaped with grass, trees and hedges, interspersed with an access road and footpaths. The estimated completion date of the Cemetery Extension project is late summer/early autumn 2006 and will cost £1.7 million. The cemetery will satisfy the local burial demand for the next 50 years.

As part of the development, an impressive amount of 1,400 trees and 300 m of hedges are being planted. This new woodland will absorb carbon dioxide counteracting the emissions of a modest order of magnitude of 800 cars (using calculations from This area of East London is therefore the only area that immediately meets its target of fighting climate change by increasing its inner city woodlands. This target would not have been achievable without the cemetery development.

The cemetery development helped address several sustainability objectives:
 Combating climate change through intensive tree planting;
 Enlarging ecological habitats within the urban environment;
 Increasing biodiversity;
 Encouraging cultural and religious expression in a multicultural society.

From 9th IEF Electronic Conference 2005

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Last updated 12 April 2006