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A Grave Matter: Recycling Burials in Overcrowded Cities

For the genealogist, professional or otherwise, cemeteries are a vital part of understanding a family lineage or a specific ancestor’s life. They hold special importance to descendants and relatives as the physical location that they can visit where their ancestor will lay for all time.

Unless, of course, it’s not only their ancestor buried in the grave.

No, it’s not a murder mystery. For cities such as London, with an ancient history and an overcrowded populous, cemetery workers and researchers are trying to find a pragmatic approach to a sensitive issue: what do you do when there’s no more room for the dead?

One of the solutions select cemeteries in London are implementing is the practice of grave recycling. Grave recycling is when older burials are exhumed in order to bury the original occupant lower in the earth and bury a new occupant above them. City of London cemetery, one of the London cemeteries employing grave recycling, creates a new inscription on the back of the original tombstone and re-erects it reversed such that the new information faces forward and the old inscription is preserved, therein honoring both burials.

Grave recycling is a recent addition to burial culture in modern London, but it has been practised elsewhere for quite some time. Many countries around the world employ various forms of grave recycling; they may even completely remove the former burial and relocate it in order to free up the burial plot for reuse. A cemetery in Guatemala City rents burial plots on a lease that must be renewed to ensure the burial is not removed. If a plot is not renewed, the remains are then exhumed to make way for a new occupant. This can obviously make genealogical inquiry difficult in countries that use grave recycling, especially if the ultimate goal is to locate the true final resting place of an ancestor.

London, and the UK as a whole, is grappling with the emotional aspect of the reuse of graves. As a new cultural concept, it elicits great concern and many questions from the community. At what point does a family lose its connection to an ancestor? At what point does a burial move from a deeply emotional feature to a purely historical one? When is a society allowed to sever ties from its ancestry in order to better serve the present-day community?

The problem exists across the globe, as land for burials is growing scarce everywhere. In cultures where death is as revered, and feared, as in the UK (and the USA), it will be difficult to change public perception of death and burial. It is a conversation that will need to happen within cities, in small communities, and in every family. As you yourself think about the fate of your mortal remains, you can add another mystery to ponder: who exactly are you going to be buried with?

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