What  a hot topic Garden Burial has become since the MP for South Shields recently declared in the Commons that funeral poverty was forcing people to bury their loved ones in the back garden!

Well, yes and no.  Firstly, yes, it will save you cemetery fees but no, generally people with the luxury of a privately owned garden are not usually the ones in funeral poverty.

garden burial 1Garden Burial – What are the rules?

There  are a few  but  this  does  not  mean  that  a  private  land  burial  is  necessarily  a  good  idea.   The  landed  gentry have  been  doing  it  for  generations and  calls  to  our  helpline  are  generally  from  farmers,  small  holders,  woodland  owners  and  those  with  generous gardens.

There  are  cases  of  individuals  being buried  in  smaller  gardens  but  as  we will read  below  these  are  perhaps more prone to be exhumed by future owners.

Owning  the  freehold  of  the land  with  no  outstanding  mortgage is key.

Being  high  and  dry,  where  the  digging  of  a  grave  is  not  going  to  breach the  water  table  is  a  good  start.

The  Environment  Agency  have  issued guidelines regarding distances from running  or  standing water  and  obviously  a  body  should  not  be  buried anywhere  near  a  spring  or  borehole used  for  drinking  water.

As long as the death is registered in the normal way and the registrar informed of the location of the burial within 96 hours, using the slip at the bottom of the ‘green form’, you essentially do not need permission from anyone to carry out a home burial.

garden burial 2










You only need planning permission for a garden bural if you are changing the use of the land, ie turn it into a cemetery by either burying lots of people or changing the use of the land by erecting large monuments or fencing it off.  So a garden must stay a garden and a paddock a paddock etc.

Every week I  send out ‘how to dig a grave’ pdfs and sample burial registers to those undertaking home or private land burials (you need to leave a detailed record of the grave and its occupant with the deeds).  I always express caution on the subject, especially when the caller tells me that it is a garden burial in an urban area.  I recently had a call from one gentleman from a Birmingham back-to-back with only a yard; he was determined!

So, on the one hand you have the likes of Kirstie Allsop burying her mother on her estate and then the case of Mr and Mrs X whose bodies were exhumed by professional exhumation specialist at Rowland Brothers and re interred in the local cemetery once their house was sold.  Was this what they really wanted to happen or had their dream of lying undisturbed in their beloved garden been ill conceived, poorly planned and inadequately protected?

There is also a smattering of urban myth and assumption made about private land burial.  The most common is that you will devalue the property.  True, you may be restricting the number of prospective buyers but if your land is beautiful and the grave is tucked away somewhere, the purchaser might well appreciate and respect your desire to remain there and wish to join you when their time comes.

garden burial 3One estate agent advised a widow that, by law, she must exhume her husband from their 100 acre estate before it could be put on the market.  She duly obeyed only to discover that this was his presumption and the whole episode and subsequent mental trauma avoidable.

It is the duty of a vendor to disclose the presence of a grave.  I heard of one case where the farmer’s wife sold up and did not disclose the presence of his grave, nor attach anything to the deeds.  The new owner only became aware of the burial when at the local pub he was asked if he minded having farmer X looking over the family from the top field?  They took the wife to court, got permission to exhume and sued her for the costs.

Exhumation from non consecrated land.  (if consecrated a whole other raft of church laws apply)

You have to apply to the Ministry Of Justice for a licence.  There is no fee applicable but you have to employ a professional exhumation specialist and this can be pricey.  Interestingly if you employ the same firm to re-inter the remains elsewhere, it is classed as a funeral and you avoid VAT charges.

I have just read back over what I have written and it makes for pretty gloomy reading.  To counter this I would say that the vast majority of home burials are beautiful and the families are very happy with the choice they made.  They cause no trouble and are, on the whole I hear, very quiet residents.>>

I have asked Michael Gill to share some thoughts, drawn from his experience and give his perspective on private land burial:-

Personal view by Funeral Director Michael Gill. 

So, according to Emma Lewell-Buck MP, funerals are now so expensive people are being forced to bury their deceased in their own back garden,  and I, as a Funeral Director of thirty years standing should, presumably, be preparing our company for more home burials than we have seen before.  Presumably, Ms Lewell-Buck has some evidence to back up her statement. Maybe home burials are becoming more attractive in South Shields although I would guess it may not be because of economic factors. So what is the reason?

My personal feeling is that ease of visiting and being near to family is not the main sentiment. It is usually the interred who wish to be buried in this way, not the remaining relatives. It is, I think, a wish to remain in a place you loved in life, and to remain there undisturbed. Does it work?

It’s an almost unavoidable fact that, whatever one person buries, given time, another will dig up again. Even established cemeteries reclaim land from old, unattended burials, either by exhumation or ‘cover and cut’.

So is it the feeling that being buried on the family ‘estate’ is more under the control of the bereaved.

I looked after the exhumation & re-interment of Victor Hervey, 6th Marquess of Bristol, who is now buried in the family vault of the private Church in the grounds of Ickworth House, Suffolk.

Effectively a garden burial and fairly secure as the estate is now owned by the National Trust. So, if this is the security you are looking for in perpetuity, with an estate in Suffolk, you can achieve it. Should your estate amount to less than 250 acres however, last week’s exhumation would suggest garden burial isn’t going to do it.

garden burial 4As long as it is known that deceased people are present on the property someone will wish to remove them, either future owners or neighbours. Anonymity seems to be more effective. King Richard III remained undisturbed beneath a car park in Leicester for over five hundred years (although it obviously wasn’t always a car park) and Oliver Cromwell still lies undisturbed somewhere beneath what is now Marble Arch – both due to their graves being unrecorded, not an option available to garden burial as a register has to be added to the deeds.

There may be another advantage to garden burial that explains the renewed interest; ease of exhumation.

In my experience the most common reason for arranging an exhumation is relocation of the family. Having spent their working lives away from their roots, people wish to return home and want to take their deceased relative with them.  Bury in your back garden and when the family are ready to move, the permission is issued by the Ministry of Justice in a matter of days.  Bury in a cemetery and it is possible that the plot could be in ground consecrated by the Church of England.

The view of the Church is that burial is in perpetuity, although, considering how many Church Yard projects I have advised upon, even those buried within the Church grounds are not immune to disturbance. The Faculty document is, however, in consequence, a nightmare permission to gain.

So, is it a good idea to be buried in your own back garden? I think that can only be a purely personal sentiment and all the arguments in the world will not change someone’s mind if that is what they feel they should do.

The exhumation Rosie referred to earlier in this article was that of an elderly couple whose whole lifestyle appeared ‘different’ and may not be representative of the reasons behind most people’s interest in home burial. Their case does, however, illustrate some problems associated with the practice.

Their exhumation was an exercise in keeping a low profile whilst many curtains twitched. The burials had caused huge local debate and the exhumation just the same. How would you feel if your neighbour had their own private cemetery in their back garden?  The new home owner’s decision was taken with a heavy heart, knowing that their last wishes must be overturned in order to prevent the property falling into decay.

I wouldn’t wish to place my descendants in such an awkward position, would you?


18th January 2015