Home Office Report on Brookwood CemeteryGrieving knight carving on the Colquhoun mausoleum

This report was compiled by an independent consultant employed by the Home Office as part of its investigation into the current state of cemeteries in the United Kingdom.

Grieving knight carving on the Colquhoun mausoleum

The Home Office is undertaking a national survey of cemeteries consequent to the publication of the Select Committee Report on cemetery provision in the UK in April 2001. 

The full text of the final report Cemeteries and their Management (pdf format) appeared in January 2004. Currently the case studies (to be published as a supplementary annex) have yet to appear.

Home Office: Research into Cemeteries and their Management, Case Study 3

Brookwood Cemetery Ltd, private company, English suburbs

by Brenda Wilson, Research & Consultancy

BACKGROUND

The Company (Brookwood Cemetery Ltd) manages one cemetery site today covering 450 acres of what was originally 2,000 acres of common land acquired from Lord Onslow, 500 acres of which were developed to create the original cemetery. The original private company was dissolved in 1975 and the grounds changed hands several times until the present owners took over in 1985.

It is still the largest cemetery in the UK with some 240,000 burials since 1854. This is a site of national, and international, social and cultural importance. It contains plots belonging to several local parishes (some still with active burial grounds), sections devoted to many religions of the world (e.g. Russian Orthodox - with resident monastery - Swedish Congregational, Zoroastrians, Muslims) as well as Anglican and ex-patriot communities (Italian community). In addition there is a large area devoted to military cemeteries administered separately by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, with sections for Turkish, British, American, Canadian, Czechoslovakian war dead, as well as memorials to commonwealth war dead.

The main cemetery has many outstanding examples of memorials, statuary and mausolea, and is the resting place of many historic personages. These include: St Edward the Martyr (c959-978/9) (accompanied by the small active Orthodox Christian monastic Brotherhood of St Edward [sic] serving his shrine); Sir Lord Edward Pelham-Clinton [sic] (former master of the Queen's Household); Field Marshal Sir William Robert Robertson, Commander-in-Chief Home Forces during the First World War; Thomas Graham Balfour, Queen Victoria's physician and former President of the Statistical Society; Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke, one time Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary; and countless earls, viscounts, foreign ambassadors, industrialists, painters, poets, sportsmen, singers, writers, military families of long pedigree, surgeons, artists, civil and railway engineers, illustrators (of Rupert Bear), and social reformers.

The original layout and planting was on a grand scale of most of the cemetery's mature trees date back to the 1850s with several avenues of redwoods, Chilean pines, and an abundance of rhododendrons, pine woodland and wild flowers. Guided tours are available on a regular basis, organised by the Brookwood Cemetery Society, which was established in 1992. In addition to widening interest in the cemetery and its history through guided tours and a website, they are also involved in regular ground clearance sessions, giving lectures to local organisations and organise an annual Open Day. They are also transcribing and indexing the Burial Registers.

BURIAL GROUND MAINTENANCE AND CAPACITY

Records

Records for the site are held at the cemetery office, and at the local History Centre. These are mostly in book or microfilm format, and computerisation is underway. Current records (bookings, burials, graves and burial grounds) are managed using a specially commissioned custom software package. Access to records would be through the owner of the cemetery based at the cemetery offices. There are search fees for accessing individual records of 20, but wider access and the costs involved would need to be negotiated.

In addition to the usual cemetery functions, a good deal of administrative effort is spent in conducting historical research into legal titles to property and burial and burial ground records due to the patchy inheritance from previous owners.

Capacity

There are approximately 300,000 grave plots, accounting for an estimated 240,000 burials. The vast majority of grave plots (236,000) have exclusive rights of burial. Burial rights are granted for 50 years. No estimate of the total unused burial space could be given, (possibly 200 acres) but, based on a survey in the early 1990s, there is capacity for an estimated 200 years, and thereafter it is envisaged older graves might be re-used.

Site maintenance

The site, at 450 acres, is one the scale of a large country estate. All administration and most grounds maintenance is carried out via directly employed staff. Large maintenance projects (ground clearing etc) are contracted out. Buildings maintenance and some specialist arboricultural work is also externally contracted as needed.

Since the present owner took over, the avenues have been widened by removing dead and diseased trees and roads tarmacadamed. Large sections have been landscaped, and the soil level raised to combat problems with the high water table. The entire perimeter of the cemetery has been enclosed with a brick wall. The site was very overgrown when the site was purchased in 1985, and ground works to deal with the legacy of woodpiles, mounds of vegetation and mounds of concrete continues.

The company is currently bidding to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funds to renovate mausoleums/roads/landscaping/heritage centre/gatehouse (to control fly-tipping, stealing, vandalism).

Cemetery Sites: Issues

The site owners have installed gates at one of the main entrances in an attempt to curb the high levels of vandalism and illegal tipping. These problems may exceed a nuisance level. There has been one recent case where word spread that a large area was being cleared for re-planting. A convoy of lorries began streaming into the site to fly-tip. When the owner's step-daughter and another woman friend attempted to stop the lorries at the gates, their vehicles were interfered with and requests to the local police for assistance were refused because it was private land. Lodges have been fire-bombed, there are frequent incidences of cars being crashed into the boundary walls, in addition to the more usual type of level of vandalism found in urban cemeteries.

Every tree on the site has a TPO (tree protection order) on it. This produces the absurdity that trees are unable to be pruned, despite the fact that they are interfering with, and will probably damage or destroy, statues and memorials of great importance.

The site has been designated a 'conservation area' by the local authority, and the site is also a SSSI and Grade II listed by English Heritage in their Register of Parks and Gardens. The Cemetery Society (not the owner) provided a note of difficulties with the local authority who appear to act selectively or inconsistently with regard to the cemetery's heritage/conservation designated status. For example, by granting planning permission for a modern office development across the road from the main entrance the cemetery, against the opinion of the County Archaeologist who considered the development would destroy an important historic landscape. The cemetery also protested against the development. In relation to the 'conservation order' the LA interpretations appear to have been applied very literally and they have taken legal action against the owner of the cemetery for dumping what the LA calls 'waste', but which the cemetery regards as 'garden pruning and other green waste' and which lie in an area of the cemetery that has been used as a composting area for many years.

Memorial safety is a constant problem, especially since they reported that there are no standards to apply to memorial masons. The company now operates an approved memorial mason scheme and this has improved the ability to recall masons back to site to rectify problems.

MANAGEMENT PRACTICE

Whilst there is a clear vision and communicated forward plan, this is not laid out in a formal management plan.

Staffing and training

The cemetery is run as a family enterprise. There are in total 2 full time and one part time manager/administrators, one full and one part time and four volunteer operatives who are directly employed.

There are no formal qualifications required for managerial and admin posts, though computer literacy, mapping skills and customer care are desirable. Operatives need to have experience in grounds maintenance.

There is induction training for grounds staff on machinery handling, safety, and grave digging. The rudiments of burial law are covered for all staff. The company mostly trains staff on the job, as needed, with new staff spending some time shadowing employees that are more experienced. There is thus no formal training strategy or budget allocated. Administrative staffs are undergoing training in the new record-keeping software. Otherwise there is little time for training, hence they have little experience of the external training available. Operatives have the opportunity to train at college if they wish. Recruitment of grounds staff, which is not well paid, is difficult in a high wage area. However, there is a core of dedicated grounds maintenance staff who perform their work with sensitivity and appreciation of the site.

Knowledge of legislation

On a 7-point scale ranking of knowledge of legislation (with 1 being 'know everything there is to know' and 7 indicating the respondent felt 'totally ignorant'), state legislation was ranked 5, ecclesiastical law 5, and Health and safety Regulations 4. Sources of advice used were: for state legislation solicitors or the Home Office, and a variety of established contacts are used depending on the religion involved where religious burial law is concerned. Advice had been sought from the Home Office about illegal burial of ashes, but they had been advised this was not a matter for the Home Office. The Police regarded it as a civil matter and could offer no help either. The Borough's Health and Safety Department were usually helpful in sorting out queries related to H & S.

Compulsory training needs

Asked if there were areas of training for good and safe practice for those working in cemetery services provision that, in their view, ought to be compulsory, the following areas were thought to be important:

  • grave-digging

  • machinery handling

Networking/linkages

The company is a member of the Association of Burial Authorities. There are formal links with the Cemetery Society (whose work is outlined above) and with the County History Centre where records about the cemetery can be searched.

Good practice that the respondent could share with others

  • use of voluntary groups to help with maintenance/clearnace

  • Good practice guidance that respondent considers needs developing:

  • the manual on 'everything'

  • central point of expertise/advice

  • Suggested improvements to current sharing of good practice:

  • improved links and networking between sub-sectors of the industry

LOCAL ISSUES

  • recruitment problems for grounds maintenance staff

  • maintenance of a large site

  • funding

  • relations with the local authority

Most important to tackle: funding.

NATIONAL PRIORITIES

Asked what changes they would make to cemetery provision in this country given unlimited power and resources:

  • adequate land provision needs to be ensured

  • clarity of level of service the public can expect and raising the public awareness of the value of cemetery services generally as social provision

  • make it easier to arrange for re-interment. The company has many customers who wish to move their relatives so they can be nearer departed loved ones.

  • simplify the legislation

CASE SUMMARY

A site of extreme importance as a cemetery, as a cultural, historical, and architectural record for this and many other nations.

The sheer scale of the site is a serious undertaking for a family business. Despite the strong dedication and commitment of the owner to bringing the site fully back to its former glory, it is difficult to see how this can be achieved without the aid from the various funding streams that exist, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund. The site has the potential to become a World Heritage Site, and the owners would like to share their enthusiasm and enjoyment of a unique site to the full with others.

Brenda Wilson, Research & Consultancy

This site was last updated 24-02-06 The Brookwood Cemetery Society