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England and Wales

Shortage of space for burial

In some areas, land for burial is scarce and some burial grounds have closed because they are full. Many people, including some faith groups for whom burial is a religious requirement, do not wish to consider the option of cremation.

The problem of the shortage of burial space has been highlighted repeatedly. The reuse of graves, using the “lift and deepen” (PDF) method has been under consideration for some time as a means of addressing this problem. This involves the exhumation of remains in an existing grave, digging the grave to a greater depth, re-interring the remains (in a fresh coffin, if necessary), and using the rest of the grave for fresh burials.

Current position

The general position is that buried human remains may not be disturbed without specific authority. Section 25 of the Burial Act 1857 makes it an offence to remove buried human remains without a licence from the Secretary of State or, in relation to ground consecrated according to the rites of the Church of England, a faculty (permission from the Church). Graves have been reused in London with Church permission.

Under the Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977, burial authorities may “reclaim” rights in reserved graves purchased at least 75 years ago if the rights have not been exercised and the relevant notice has been given.

London burial authorities have some additional powers. In specified circumstances, they may reclaim a private grave (a grave in respect of which an exclusive right of burial has been purchased) and then use the remaining space in it for the purpose of further burial, where the burial rights have not been exercised for 75 years or more and notice has been published. This process would not disturb any existing remains in the grave (PDF).

London burial authorities also have power to disturb remains in private graves older than 75 years for the purpose of deepening the grave to allow further burials to take place.

Labour Government consultation

In 2004, the Labour Government consulted on a number of issues relating to burial law (PDF), including the reuse of graves. The proposal to reuse graves had a mixed reception.

In its response to the consultation, the Labour Government initially indicated it was satisfied that it would be right to enable graves to be reused, subject to appropriate safeguards. However, it later said this issue was being kept under review but was not being taken forward at that time. Successive Governments have similarly kept the issue under review.

Law Commission project

In December 2022, the Law Commission began a project, Burial, Cremation, and New Funerary Methods. At the time of writing this briefing, the project is still at its scoping phase which will lead to terms of reference being agreed with the Government. However, the Law Commission anticipates the project will include a review of the laws governing burials and cremation and consideration of the creation of a regulatory framework for safe and dignified new processes.


In Scotland, graves are referred to as “lairs”, and reuse of graves as “restoration to use of lairs”.

The Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016 provides for the restoration to use of lairs (sections 32 to 44), although most of these provisions are not yet in force (as of October 2023). This legislation followed a Scottish Government consultation which included questions about alleviating pressure on burial grounds. Most individuals who responded to the consultation opposed the proposal or called for more information about proposed safeguards.

The Scottish Government considered that, despite these objections, the fundamental purpose of the proposal remained valid and would be taken forward, and pointed to the safeguards which would be put in place.

The Scottish Government is currently consulting on a range of matters relating to burial, including in relation to commencing the sections in the 2016 Act which deal with the restoration to use of lairs. The consultation will close on 17 November 2023.

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