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Bury the dead alongside British motorways, says public health chief

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 04/07/2019 Sarah Knapton
"London, United Kingdom - August 4, 2008: Tombs by the path in Highgate Cemetery, clad with green trees and patches of grass. The cemetery is notable for some renowned people buried there." © Burcin Tuncer "London, United Kingdom - August 4, 2008: Tombs by the path in Highgate Cemetery, clad with green trees and patches of grass. The cemetery is notable for some renowned people buried there."

Britain’s motorways have never felt particularly life-affirming, but they could become even more soulless under proposals to bury the dead alongside major roads to free up room in cemeteries. 

Professor John Ashton, former president of the Faculty of Public Health, has called for green burial corridors next to roads, railways and country footpaths. 

British graveyards are close to capacity, and with 500,000 deaths in England and Wales each year, it is estimated there will be no more plots left within five years.

a car driving down a street: Drivers no longer require a hard shoulder, the government agency which operates the UK’s major roads has said - PA © Rui Vieira/PA Drivers no longer require a hard shoulder, the government agency which operates the UK’s major roads has said - PA

To combat the squeeze, Prof Ashton has proposed the creation of rustic cemeteries, similar to those proposed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1711, where corpses would be buried under trees, bushes and flowers, nestled alongside Britain’s infrastructure. 

Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Prof Ashton, said: “British graveyards and cemeteries are rapidly running out of room and, despite the increasing use of reclaiming graves for further use, matters are likely to come to a head over the next five years.

“Finding optimal ways of ecological disposal of the inevitable increase in the numbers of dead should be seen as something requiring public health attention.

Gallery: World's most beautiful cemeteries (Picture Services)

“Surely what is needed now is a grand strategic vision for green burial places to reclaim our cities with urban and peri-urban woods and forests and for it to be a requirement for trunk transport routes to include linear wildlife burial corridors alongside them.”

It is not the first time Britain has faced a burial crisis. In the 1830s and 40s, London was forced to build seven large modern cemeteries in central London, now known as the Magnificent Seven, after inner-city churchyards struggled to cope with the rising numbers of city dwellers. 

The grand graveyards of Highgate and Kensal Rise were created during this period, and in 1852 that a national system of municipal cemeteries were established across the country, but little has been done since then to modernise to cope with the ever-growing demand. 

Environment Secretary Michael Gove arrives at his office in Westminster, London. (Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images) Environment Secretary Michael Gove arrives at his office in Westminster, London. (Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)

Prof Ashton said that planting linear tree-filled cemeteries along roads and railways could help climate change as well as providing more room for the dead.

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, recently announced a scheme to plant 130,000 trees in urban areas to reduce pollution and global warming, and Prof Ashton believes the project could be expanded to also solve the cemetery crisis.

“Lacking in ambition as this is, it gives a clue as to what might be possible by joining up the dots of green environmentalism and human burial,” he added.

Kensal Rise Cemetery, London © Getty Kensal Rise Cemetery, London

“As we face a new crisis, there is an opportunity to recast our approach so that each of us can contribute to saving the planet as the last act of our short lifespan.

“A glimpse of what might be possible with political will and imagination can be seen by what has happened alongside long-forgotten canals by neglect and default where wildlife corridors have evolved over time.”

Around 20 per cent of people are now buried, with the majority of people now cremated.

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