Muslim cemeteries across England facing capacity crisis

‘As fast as we're digging the graves we're filling them up with dead bodies’

Muslim graves at Handsworth Cemetery, Birmingham, 19-11-2020.
Photos by John Robertson for The National.
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Muslim cemeteries across the UK are facing a capacity crisis, an investigation by The National can reveal.

Difficulties facing the graveyards have come to a head during the Covid-19 pandemic with the Muslim community particularly badly hit in England and Wales, according to latest data from the UK's Office for National Statistics.

Zulfi Karim, chairman of Bradford's Council of Mosques and the head of the Muslim Bereavement Service, said there had been a sharp surge in deaths within the community in the north of England because of Covid-19.

"As fast as we're digging the graves we're filling them up with dead bodies. It's really, really concerning and my staff are getting to the stage where we're at full capacity,” he said.

Last month, Birmingham’s Handsworth cemetery became the first in the UK to close to Muslim burials after reaching full capacity.

Undertakers in the northern English city of Bradford have been working around the clock as the city’s main Muslim cemetery Scholemoor is struggling to keep up with burials.

Planning applications to create thousands of new plots are now being submitted to local authorities across the UK with demands for hundreds of new graves to be allotted in towns and cities.

Dr Julie Rugg, who leads the University of York's Cemetery Research Group, told The National she has been warning the government for two decades of the urgent need to address the "intrinsically problematic" issue.

“The crisis is built into our system. We’ve always been at crisis levels,” she said. “There’s a red light that’s been shining for decades.

“We have no national data on the number of cemeteries in operation, how full they are, and the particular pressures faced by particular groups in particular locations.

“We don't know what the impact of the pandemic is on burial provision. This means that we are totally unable to respond strategically, and local authorities are making their own decisions.

"In the last year, the Burial and Cremation Advisory Group was asked for evidence that England was running out of burial space. Given that this is a problem that BCAG has been articulating for nearly 20 years, this was almost laughably exasperating."

Dr Rugg said two audits on burial space in London revealed some local authorities have no burial space at all.

“We know from having done two successive London burial audits that cemetery space becomes elastic: as pressure on space increases, then local authorities are more likely to dig up paths, use parking spaces, demolish buildings and bring in additional soil to pile on existing graves to create depth,” she said.

“This is not a satisfactory way to run things and does not resolve the problem.”

Muslim graves at Handsworth Cemetery, Birmingham, 19-11-2020.
Photos by John Robertson for The National.
Muslim graves at Handsworth Cemetery, Birmingham, 19-11-2020. Photos by John Robertson for The National.

Gardens of Peace, now the largest Muslim cemetery in the country, opened in east London in 2002 and within 15 years all of its 10,000 plots were occupied.

Mohamed Omer, who runs the London operation, called for government action.

“Burial space is a big concern and we urge planning authorities to relax the rules for new burial cemeteries just as they are for new crematoria,” he said.

Bradford Council is now pushing ahead with plans to expand the cemetery and create hundreds of new spaces.

Mick Priestley, who works for the local authority, warned in the summer that new spaces would be needed “if the pandemic comes back with a sting”.

“We need to get on and complete the implementation of the Bereavement Strategy so we are prepared for the future,” councillor Sarah Ferriby said.

“When people die it is very important to us that we accord them the dignity of their beliefs and that we have plenty of space for those people who desire burial and modern, quality crematoria for those who prefer cremation.”

In neighbouring Batley, the town cemetery is set to be expanded to create space for 600 plots. A report to Kirklees Council warned in August of the need for Muslim burial space in the district.

"While the need for Christian burial has decreased over recent decades, the need for Muslim burial is urgent,” it said. “The need for burial space within the Batley district and community is identified as being particularly pressing."

In Ripponden, West Yorkshire, the Rest Gardens are applying to change an angling centre into a burial ground, which would create 1,665 plots for Muslims.

In Birmingham, 12,000 new burial spaces have been made available at its Sutton New Hall cemetery, with further provision available to extend by another 18 acres.

“The impact of Covid-19 has meant that burial space at Handsworth cemetery has been used at a faster rate than we would have previously anticipated,” said councillor Sharon Thompson, cabinet member for homes and neighbourhoods. “However, we’ve planned for the time the cemetery at Handsworth would reach its capacity.”

In Preston, councillors have been warned space will soon run out.

“Specifically there is a need for a new burial area for the Muslim community, as their existing burial area has approximately three to four years of new grave spaces,” a report said.

Plans have been submitted to build one of Britain’s biggest Muslim-only cemeteries with 5,040 graves in Solihull, near Birmingham, and Worcester Muslim cemetery has asked for permission for a further 750 spaces.

The Cemetery Development Service, which submitted the plans on behalf of the Muslim community, said there is only provision in Solihull for up to 25 years.

In London, mass graves were dug earlier this year to cope with demand at the Eternal Gardens, in Chislehurst, which has adopted an unprecedented method of burying the deceased that is compliant with Islamic law.

It involves burying up to 10 people in individual chambers within one plot after a single funeral prayer is performed.

In Italy, a similar picture has emerged during the pandemic and imams and Muslim community leaders are among those calling for more burial plots.

“We have experienced the pain of the pandemic, but it has sometimes been deepened when some families could not find a place to bury their dead because there were no Muslim sections in the town cemeteries,” said Abdullah Tchina, imam of the Milan Sesto mosque.

Many Italian Muslims were forced to travel long distances to bury their dead, or to leave bodies for days in morgues, or even keep them at home while seeking a space to lay them to rest.

Gueddouda Boubakeur, president of Milan’s Islamic Centre, has called for more “political will” to create additional Muslim burial spaces.