A shortage of space
In the early 19th century the population of many parishes rose sharply, and churchyards ran out of space.
A grave problem
The problem was particularly acute in and around London, and in the expanding industrial towns of the Midlands and the North. The chronic overcrowding of churchyards was unsanitary and added to existing worries about public health.
Beginning in the 1820s, large burial grounds, known as cemeteries (from a Greek word meaning sleeping place) were established on the outskirts of big industrial towns such as Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle.
These cemeteries were private commercial ventures in the form of joint-stock companies that were set up under individual Acts of Parliament. In 1832 London's first cemetery was created at Kensal Green.
In the 1840s the continuing pressure for more burial space was intensified by cholera and other epidemics. Town councils were forced to seek their own Acts to allow them to set up cemeteries financed from the rates.
During the 1850s a number of new laws - beginning with the Metropolitan Burial Act of 1852 - initiated a national system of new public cemeteries. Burial places considered dangerous to health were closed.
Town councils were empowered to form Burial Boards - made up of groups of ratepayers - to establish and manage cemeteries in their localities.
The Public Health (Interments) Act of 1879 took an important further step by making it a duty of local health authorities to provide cemeteries if local conditions required it.
Large numbers of public cemeteries were opened over the next few years and were available to all denominations and faiths. In 1894, under the Local Government Act, the maintenance of cemeteries became the responsibility of local government.
The Burial Act 1857 required the production of a licence from the Secretary of State before human remains could be removed from a grave unless a faculty (permission from the Church of England for removal from consecrated ground) had been granted.
The Local Government Act 1972 now provides burial authorities (defined to include district councils of London boroughs and parish councils) with a general power to provide and maintain public cemeteries- but there is no statutory duty to provide burial space. Specific powers and duties of burial authorities are set out in the Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977.
Page last updated 1st May 2014