Arnos Vale Cemetery, Arnos Vale, Bristol
Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol © Historic England Archive
Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol © Historic England Archive

Management of Historic Cemeteries

Historic cemeteries are often complex sites rich in architecture and sculpture. They can also be wonderful wildlife habitats. Most importantly, they are places for commemoration, mourning and remembrance.

This page provides sources of advice on the management of cemeteries. It will also be useful if you are looking after other types of historic burial grounds, including churchyards.

Cemetery management guidance

The Ministry of Justice provides two guidance publications on cemetery management:

Further information on standards and best practice for cemeteries, crematoria and memorials is available from:

Different faith groups sometimes have their own burial grounds and standards of best practice for the care of these sites.

The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust’s 2020 video: Highgate Cemetery: Enhancing and conserving a historic cemetery for the 21st century explains the challenges and opportunities of looking after a historic cemetery.

Conservation management plans for cemeteries

Conservation management plans are great tools for pulling together information about what’s special about a site. They help in working out how to manage it, and agreeing how to deal with seemingly conflicting interests. Often the plan-making process helps find ways to integrate all interests. As well as looking after historic features, the plan can be used to help plan changes like areas for new burials.

The key to an effective conservation management plan is to think about how you’re going to develop it and who needs to be involved, such as cemetery staff, contactors, volunteers, to cemetery visitors, local residents and communities. Different people may be able to help with specific tasks. Thought also needs to be given on how you are going to share the conservation management plan and the valuable information you will have gathered, where you are going to keep it, and how you will update it. Our web section on conservation management plans provides links to online guidance about preparing plans.

In drawing up the plan, you are likely to need:

  • Archive research of historic layout plans, maps, architects’ drawings, and other documentation
  • A survey of landscape design including historic planting
  • A tree survey
  • An ecological survey
  • A buildings gazetteer and condition survey – this should include lodges, gates, boundaries, chapels, catacombs, mausolea and all other buildings. See our Condition survey form
  • A monument gazetteer and condition survey – this should include notes on sculpture, and geological interest. Advice is given in Caring for Cemetery and Graveyard Monuments
  • Biographical research of the people buried in the cemetery – are there different social, ethnic or religious groups, notable individuals?
  • A review of the burial and cremation business needs including new burials, and constraints like regulations
  • A review of current management including security, traffic, waste, problems like vandalism, broken drains, path surfacing
  • To find out about the cemetery users, visitors and the community’s views about what they value and how they would like to be involved

Your assessment of the historic and cultural importance of the cemetery should take into account:

Cemetery grave re-use debate

The House of Commons Library briefing paper (July 2017) explains the need for more burial spaces in towns and cities and the possibility of re-using graves.

Where burial in private graves was granted in perpetuity, overtime cemeteries can become full and no longer able to offer burial space. The character of cemeteries changes when they become closed sites, no longer offering burials. It's important that cemeteries continue to be functional. Subject to protecting the historic interest of a cemetery, its design and individual monuments and graves, Historic England supports the principle of grave re-use. Conservation management plans can help work out possible grave re-use schemes.

Historic England is a member of the Ministry of Justice’s Burials and Cremation Advisory Group. The group advises burial authorities, the public and government on providing, managing and maintaining burial grounds, including those closed to further burials; good burial practice and procedures including exhumation; and possible improvements to policy and legislation. The Law Commission has initiated a project 'Burial, Cremation, and New Funerary Methods' (December 2022) as part of its Programme of Law Reform.

In London, the local authority cemeteries already have statutory powers to re-use graves. The London Environment Directors Network has produced ‘Technical Guidance on the Re-Use and Reclamation of Graves in London Local Authority Cemeteries’. It explains what is re-use and sets out the principles for re-use. Two other cemeteries now have Acts that allow re-use: New Southgate Cemetery (2017) and Highgate Cemetery (2022). There is a private Bill before Parliament for Bishop’s Stortford Cemetery (December 2022).

The legal position of re-use of graves is different in Church of England consecrated grounds.

Treatment of human remains

Human remains, and the archaeological evidence for the rites which accompanied and commemorate their burial, are important sources of scientific information.

Human remains should always be treated with dignity and respect.

The key guidance is the Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England’s (APAB) ‘Guidance for Best Practice for the Treatment of Human Remains Excavated from Christian Burial Grounds in England’ (2017).

Please also see our web page Human Remains Advice for more information.

Redundant or derelict cemetery chapels and buildings

Cemetery chapels, lodges, boundary walls and other buildings are important features of the cemetery landscape design.

The chapels are focal points in the cemetery design. Often two chapels were built: Anglican and Non-conformist or Dissenters. There are few cemeteries where both chapels survive, and many are in poor repair because they have fallen out of use. There are five listed cemetery buildings on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register but the Victorian Society’s survey shows that many more Grade II or unlisted chapels are at risk.

Our web page New and Additional Uses for Places of Worship provides advice and ideas on identifying options and developing projects. The case on the Lye and Wollescote Cemetery Chapels looks at the West Midlands Historic Buildings Trust’s project to bring the redundant chapels back into use.

Churchyard management

The Council for the Care of Churches publishes the ‘Churchyards Handbook’. This book offers practical advice and explains the law for churchyards. Individual dioceses also often publish advice on memorials and churchyards.

Closed churchyards and burial grounds used as public spaces

In towns and cities, you will also find gardens and green spaces that are former historic churchyards. When a Church of England churchyard is closed for further burials (by an 'Order in Council' under the Burial Act 1853), the Church can transfer the upkeep of the site to the local authority, the borough or district council.

The Church of England’s advice on the maintenance of monuments in closed churchyards is available online.

However, there is no mechanism to safeguard other burial grounds if they become closed. According to Jewish law, Jewish burial grounds remain sacred places in perpetuity, however old.

Cemetery friends and volunteers

Friends groups have been important champions of their local cemeteries. Many started as pressure groups concerned about neglect or development threats. They are often involved in recording, research, producing leaflets, guided walks, fund raising, and practical conservation tasks. The National Federation of Cemetery Friends (NFCF) is a support organisation for all Friends groups. They offer guidance on starting up a new group.

There is also the Association of Significant Cemeteries in Europe (ASCE).

Caring for God’s Acre also provides advice on organising volunteer tasks.

Organisations like TCV (The Conservation Volunteers) can help with advice on conservation projects, tools, health and safety for volunteers, and insurance, and publish handbooks on various topics.