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Residents fight Southwark digging up the dead

21 February 2017

It all seemed so easy.

Inner city cemeteries are full. Allow cemetery owners to dig up the dead and reuse their graves and the inner city burial shortage would be solved.  

Just one little problem, or two, or three…

Residents don’t want their loved ones dug up.

And residents don’t want acres of cemetery woods and trees cut down to get at people’s graves. Families and history lovers don’t want headstones and memorials destroyed.

And perhaps as many as half of Southwark residents who seek burial can’t or don’t want to be buried over other people’s graves – out of respect or by faith – so are paying for a cemetery their families can never use.

In 2007, Harriet Harman, MP for the Camberwell Cemeteries, championed a law retrospectively cancelling the right of people to stay buried. No more Rest in Peace (See Private Eye expose here)

In Harriet Harman’s plan, cemetery owners could now apply for permission to dig up the dead for new burial plots. ‘Compulsory Purchase’ of people’s graves – except without the ‘purchase’.

Camberwell Cemeteries in Southwark in Harman’s constituency has become the test case for London and for UK-wide grave ‘re-use’. Already acres of woods, hedgerows and meadows and have been cleared in Camberwell Old Cemetery, a Grade 1 SINC, to mound over tens of thousands of graves, including six Commonwealth War Graves.

Next comes the mass exhumation of graves – a goal so odious that Southwark Councillors publicly denied they were even planning it: Watch the Evening Standard’s video here.

The scheme now has the open support of Southwark Council Leader Peter John, and the tacit support of the three Southwark Labour MPs Neil Coyle (Dulwich), Helen Hayes (West Norwood) – and of course Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) – as well as all Southwark Labour Councillors.

But Harriet Harman is refusing to meet angry residents and campaigners, despite over a hundred emails and repeated requests to meet, and despite saying to Parliament that sensitivity to local families’ and residents’ feelings would be vital.

Southwark is even ignoring their own expensive ‘consultations’. 86% of respondents last year called for an end to inner city burial on Honor Oak Nature Corridor land in Camberwell New Cemetery.

The majority of local residents don’t want it. In 2015, residents formed the Save Southwark Woods campaign to fight to save the Camberwell Cemeteries. Over 12,000 have signed a petition to protect the woods and graves and make them valuable inner city nature reserves.

Southwark still needs permission from the Diocese of Southwark of the Church of England for most development in the cemeteries.

The Council applied to the Diocese in 2016 and have not received a ruling. If the Church rejects their applications, Southwark will be forced reconsider their burial strategy.

“Southwark’s whole project is horrific,” said John Repsch, Save Southwark Woods campaigner.

“My grandmother is buried in a public grave in Camberwell New Cemetery. Southwark Councillors are acting like grave robbers. This is theft – of my grandmother’s grave, of our family history, of the respect and dignity I want my grandmother to have in death.”

Revulsion at digging up people’s graves is just another reason why Southwark must change its horrific burial policy.

The Save Southwark Woods campaign is fighting to protect the woods and graves of the Camberwell Cemeteries and preserve them as Nature Reserves, like Highgate and Nunhead Cemeteries.

For more information:

Contact the Friends of Camberwell Cemeteries

memorials of the poor dead

Above: The memorials of the poor dead in Area Z. They are to be removed and their graves are mounded over. Below: Area F, Woodvale. Mounded over in 2012 and sold off. Far below: Southwark-Style Burial.

Area F, Woodvale
Southwark-Style Burial

Below: Southwark Council Leader Peter John, responsible for mass grave exhumation and wasteful, destructive, discriminatory and disrespectful burial servce.

Far below: Harriet Harman MP refuses to meet angry residents – championed the UK law to take people’s graves and then made her own Camberwell Cemeteries the test case

Peter John
Harriet Harman QC MP