Kemnal Park Cemetery, Chislehurst, open for business - but how long can graveyard overpopulation be kept at bay?
PUBLISHED: 16:38 31 October 2013 | UPDATED: 16:41 31 October 2013
An 800-year-old Chislehurst estate is the latest solution to a problem that can never be permanently laid to rest – where to bury the dead.
Kemnal Park Cemetery, which is on the former Kemnal Manor site, is officially open for business after a ribbon-cutting ceremony earlier this month.
Its 30,000 potential plots make it London’s biggest cemetery development in a century.
But even so Kemnal Park will likely only have space for a few decades.
“London has a huge problem because graveyards are completely overpopulated and over time that problem doesn’t go away,” said operations director Michael Burke.
“All our graves are dug to 6ft 6ins so we can put two burials in them – that’s a significant step forward in saving space.
“It would be two family members, and we would make sure the grave owner had given permission.”
Despite the somewhat desperate nature of the need for more burial plots, Kemnal Park attempts to offer a more relaxed atmosphere.
“It’s a park for the living,” said Michael, 47.
“We space the service times out, so families can get the time slot they wish.
“In other places you might get a 35-minute slot in the diary and you’d have to hold the service in that short period – but here you get time slots of two hours, which allows the family to put together a service that suits them.”
Something else about the graveyard is unusual – it’s privately owned, acquired in 2009, meaning there’s no local authority involvement.
So if you live in Richmond, like Michael, but happen to fancy a burial in Bromley, you won’t have to pay the out-of-borough penalty you would at a council-owned site.
That fact will come as comfort to many – because grave prices are already expensive, often running over £1,000.
What’s more, in UK law, graves can’t be sold for more than 100 years at a time. That means if you want to keep a grave in your family you - or they - will have to keep paying.
Kemnal Manor has a rich history, with a string of grand houses dating back to 1250 having occupied its grounds – the last of which, already derelict, burnt down in the 1960s.
The site became neglected and overgrown – but beneath the wilderness lay gold.
“London clay is highly suitable for burial,” explained Michael. “The idea condition is clay soil – because it’s heavy, it gives structure to the grave, whereas sandy soil provides an opportunity for grave collapse.
“When you acquire a site, drainage is the first thing. Working in conjunction with the Environment Agency, we went through a whole series of soil tests and ground tests.
“We test for nitrogen and we look for areas of landfill.
“Once you dig a grave you shore it up. You have to put back in exactly what you removed from the grave, so the soil types are consistent.”
Then there’s a process of “backfilling” – where the grave is topped up to counter the effects of rainfall and subsidence.
But it isn’t just about headstones. Kemnal Park also has space for memorial gardens for those who want to remember their loved ones in a less formal context.
“The gardens are bespoke,” said Michael. “Families might want to landscape the area with water features or a bench.
“One family removed the roses from their mum’s garden and relocated them here.”
Despite the ever-decreasing space for burial ground, and the concomitant rise in plot prices, Michael doesn’t see demand drying up.
“We believe burial numbers will increase over time,” he said. “Certain denominations will only bury.
“We have a six-and-a-half-acre for Muslim burials called the Eternal Gardens.
“Prices increase three or four per cent per year.
“The challenge will never go away – it’s about how creative you can be with the space.”