Trend for pauper burials shocks modern London

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WHEN Sophia Wallis died at 77 in 1895, she was buried beside her husband Henry and two other family members in a shared grave at Stoke Newington’s Abney Park cemetery.

But communal burials rarely occur out­side of London anymore and are not often associated with the 21st century.

Communal graves were a feature of Victorian Britain, but many thought they had been consigned to history (Photo: Jennifer Lipman)

Yet since 2007, 24 Hackney residents have been buried in these communal graves, in­cluding one still-born infant last year. These were ‘pauper’, or ‘public health burials’, ar­ranged by the council for those without fam­ily or friends to pay.

Dominic McGuire, from the National As­sociation of Funeral Directors, said: “The public purse takes responsibility for people for whom no other satisfactory arrangements can be made.

“Councils own communal grave plots in which people with no next of kin, or down and outs, will be buried in.”

In 2009 the council arranged 43 funerals, of which all but five were cremations, as is their policy unless it has been specifically requested otherwise.

But those who requested a traditional burial may not have been informed that this condemned them to sharing a grave with to­tal strangers.

Although each person gets a grave stone and an individual coffin, critics branded it “degrading” that there might be four bodies with perhaps no family connection laid in the same plot.

“It’s because of money,” said John Beer­ing, manager of Dalston’s T. Cribb & Sons Funeral Directors. “People with no one have to be buried when and where.”

The cost of a basic funeral, including a private grave, hearse and coffin can run to £4000. A communal burial is around £1000 cheaper and cremation costs about £2500.

During the Victorian era families would often share graves because land prices were too high for them to purchase individual plots, but it came as a surprise to many that pauper burial continues.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” said Fa­ther Rob Wickham, parish priest at St John at Hackney church, who oversees an average of five funerals every month. “There are ques­tions over who those people might be. You can judge a society by how it treats its dead.”

He said in a borough with many young residents and not a single cemetery current­ly in use, Hackney was not the best at deal­ing with death and funeral processes.

“There is so much excitement about the beginning of life,” said Father Wickham.

“There should be the same care and at­tention at the tragic moment when someone passes away.”

His comments were supported by Simon Tesler, Conservative councillor for the Lordship ward, who called for an end to communal burials.

“It degrades human dignity,” he said. “The costs are not that phenomenal. The council should spend the money on indi­vidual plots.

“They can make savings elsewhere.”

Steve Douglas, the council’s corporate director for Neighbourhoods & Regen­eration, said the council complied with the principles of a charter on communal burials launched this week by the Evening Standard.

In response, he said: “Hackney Council is confident that where we manage resi­dents’ funerals, we do so with dignity and respect.”