Where do we go to die?

With our cemeteries almost full, staying buried is getting harder. Fergus Fleming digs up some morbi

Where do we go when we die? Heaven and hell aside, the traditional answer is underground. But as populations expand, burial has become less and less practicable, particularly in cities. Six hundred and fifty thousand Britons (mostly urban) die every year. Space is running out.

It's not a new problem. The dead have been giving us gyp ever since we started living in cities - and nowhere has suffered as badly as London. In the Middle Ages, Londoners worked to the formula of one corpse, one more slot in the graveyard. Fine in principle, except that there weren't enough graveyards and not nearly enough slots. By Stuart times, the capital was a mess. Bodies were hardly buried at all, simply chucked on top of each other with a scattering of earth. Ground levels in churchyards rose so dramatically that coffins spilled over the walls and chapels sat in pits, protected by dykes of stone. The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed the lot, giving London a chance to rebuild - which it did, only to find that, within a hundred years, the situation was as bad as ever. Plague, cholera and other epidemics filled graveyards to the brim. They were so mephitic that passers-by fainted and sextons had to be plied with rum before doing their job. Many of those who dwelled nearby died from what records called "putrid fever".

If finding a place to be buried was difficult, staying buried was even more so. Thanks to body-snatchers, a fresh grave was all too likely to be opened and its occupant transferred to the anatomist's slab. Vaults were built like Fort Knox, and coffins were made to last - you could even buy a booby-trapped version that exploded if opened. Mortsafes, iron cages fixed over the grave, became commonplace. But if bodies weren't bolted down or locked up (and most weren't), they were thrown out to make way for newcomers, or dug up to fuel a thriving black market. Coffins were sold for firewood, second-hand coffin furniture was peddled openly, and skeletons were shipped north to be ground down for fertiliser. It was, as one magazine complained, "a great public inconvenience", not to mention a great public health hazard.

One vicar, who ran an operation in Clement's Lane off the Strand, offered a unique solution. Enon Chapel was opened to worshippers in 1823. A thin layer of boards separated its congregation from a crypt measuring 60ft long, 29ft wide and 6ft deep. Over the course of 20 years, it was packed with 12,000 bodies, which the vicar doused with quicklime before flogging their coffins. Commercially, Enon Chapel was a success but, as a board of inquiry pointed out, it lacked delicacy.

By the mid-19th century, government was forced to address matters. Answers flooded in, some sensible, some visionary, some attractively daft. One Egyptophile architect proposed catacombs shaped like pyramids, each outer "stone" containing a coffin. The final result was more prosaic. Between 1837 and 1841, with parliamentary approval, seven privately operated "Gardens of the Dead" were laid out in London's outer suburbs. At Highgate, Brompton, Nunhead, Kensal Green, Tower Hamlets, Abney Park and West Norwood, fields were walled off, provided with catacombs and chapels, planted with trees and advertised as the safest, most exclusive resting places available. There was a price, but everybody, from royalty down, seemed willing to pay.

Cemeteries were one of the great successes of the age. They were not only large safe-deposit boxes for the dead, but also places of instruction for the living. Within their walls, Victorians could wander and ponder the hereafter. An epitaph in the Brompton "garden" captured the mood:

Readers all as you pass by,
As you are now so once was I,
As I am now so you will be.
Prepare for death and follow me!

They did, in their thousands. Extensive and often beautiful cemeteries blossomed around every major British city. The Glasgow and Liverpool necropolises were particularly impressive. But London, with its teeming population, remained the hub of the ultimate service industry. The concept became so popular that, in 1880, a special cemetery was established for pets. Set in a tiny corner of Kensington Gardens, it swelled to accommodate more than 200 birds, dogs, cats and monkeys.

The new cemeteries were fashionable. A famous burial could draw crowds of 50,000 or more. Brompton was a rural idyll, complete with shady canal (now the District Line). But wondrous and beautiful as these cemeteries were, they could not cope with the ever-increasing numbers of the dead. By 1851, London, which covered about 78,000 acres, had 300 acres of burial ground to cater for 55,500 bodies a year.

Into the breach stepped the London Necropolis Company with that ubiquitous Victorian fix-it: the steam engine. Based in Waterloo, the LNC ran a rail service to a 2,000-acre plot near Guildford in Surrey - which, it calculated, would hold all the metropolitan dead for an indefinite period. Trains were segregated into first, second and third class, with separate carriages for Anglican and Nonconformist bodies, the latter divided between "Roman Catholics, Jews, Parsees and other Dissenters". Mortuary rooms and chapels were set up at Waterloo, and special cemetery stations were built in Surrey.

The crowds of cadavers did not materialise. Rail corteges ran to schedule for decades but, even at its peak, the LNC captured no more than 10 per cent of London's dead - despite ingenious measures such as quick-vanishing "Earth to Earth" coffins for environmentalists. In 1941, when a bomb landed on Waterloo, the LNC called it a day. All that remained was 500 acres of graves surrounding three-quarters of a mile of track - "Necropolis Junction" - two clapboard stations and a church. Brookwood, as it is now called, is still a functioning cemetery; but the bulk of the property was sold off and developed, ironically, into a town: Woking.

Being buried in a cemetery was not cheap. In the 1920s, a two-person vault in "God's Acre" cost well over £100 - for many, an annual salary. This was fine as long as it lasted, but cemeteries were by definition a wasting asset. Their holding companies owned a limited space, and were bound by contract to maintain the graves in perpetuity. When the last hole had been filled, they faced an eternity of maintenance without any offsetting income. A partial solution was found by one Whitehall company: when the cemetery was full, the owners simply piled several feet of earth on the graves, in Jacobean style, to make a new burial ground above the old. Even this, however, could not prevent bankruptcy. One by one, the cemetery businesses collapsed, their grand expanses becoming overgrown jungles from which monuments poked like Mayan temples.

Today, of all the capital's great ring cemeteries - once on the outskirts, but now deep within London's sprawl - only Kensal Green is still operated by its founding company. Highgate is run by a society of Friends, but the rest are maintained by local authorities, including the ruined Abney Park, which was sold for one pound to the Borough of Hackney in 1978. London currently possesses 3,000 acres of cemetery, and most of them are full. Kensal Green still has space to sell, but Hackney, Haringey and Tower Hamlets have no more room; Enfield and Redbridge are just about to run out; and four other boroughs will run out in a decade. This is in spite of considerable doubling-up - in a multiple plot, the top body may be just three feet below the surface - as well as new legislation that permits new bodies to be buried over those more than 75 years old. In 1998, Streatham Park Cemetery opened the capital's first multi-storey catacomb. Meanwhile, developers have to be beaten back with a shovel.

Whither, then, the modern corpse? Other nations address the problem more ruthlessly than we do. In Australia, bodies are exhumed after ten years, reburied deeper down, and a new one placed on top. In Amsterdam, they are dug up after 20 years and removed to a communal grave. A similar system operates in Switzerland, where plots are leased for 20 years. In Italy, your bones are transferred to an ossuary after five years. (If you want to rest in peace in Venice, a private vault will set you back £37,000 per square metre.) In Britain, however, exhumation is frowned upon. Permission is required from either the church authorities or the Home Office, depending on the site of the grave. How long does it take for a corpse to disintegrate? If a murderer buries a victim in a shallow plot of wet ground, the evidence may disappear completely in as few as 15 years. A good undertaker, whose well-built coffins are destined for drained sites, can expect clients to be around for centuries.

The solution to all this is cremation. Almost unheard of before the 1930s, cremation has become so popular that Britain's furnaces are busier than in any other country, with the exception of Sweden and Japan: 75 per cent of us are now burned - saving an area roughly the size of Bath, according to the Cremation Society. Other options include the green burial, whereby a body is interred in a cardboard coffin and a tree is planted over it. In these conditions, corpses decompose in roughly 20 years - which, conveniently, is about the time it takes for some softwoods to be ready for milling. In our agriculturally challenged times, several farmers have seen this as a viable alternative.

There is nothing to stop you taking the DIY route and digging a grave in your own garden. All you need is a death certificate, a certificate of burial, a spade and a coffin. (A company in Kent will sell you the eco-friendly "Brighton"model; made of woodgrain-effect cardboard, it comes in a flat-pack, takes ten minutes to assemble and will hold up to 300lbs.) You want to check that you are not near a water supply, and you might want to consider resale values (of the house, that is), but otherwise it's a perfectly valid option.

And let us not forget the possibilities offered by the web. Contact http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/vmg/ for information on Britain's only Virtual Memorial Garden. Hundreds have chosen to be commemorated in virtual as opposed to real space. The site owner, Lindsay Marshall of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, looks forward to cyberpyramids and datasphinxes: "Certainly, there will be electronic crypts as pages to whole families are assembled."

But physical space is still an issue. The 162,500 of us who opt for burial take up (assuming a plot to be seven feet by three, with grassy bits around) just under 4,000,000 square feet every year. Highly desirable, in estate-agency speak. What happens to us when we are dead has become as much a question for town planners as for theologians.

Fergus Fleming's Killing Dragons: the conquest of the Alps is published on 26 October by Granta (£20)

Remember, imbeciles and wits,
sots and ascetics, fair and foul,
young girls with little tender tits,
that DEATH is written over all.

Worn hides that scarcely clothe the soul
they are so rotten, old and thin,
or firm and soft and warm and full -
fellmonger Death gets every skin.

All that is piteous, all that's fair,
all that is fat and scant of breath,
Elisha's baldness, Helen's hair,
is Death's collateral:

Three score and ten years after sight
of this pay me your pulse and breath
value received. And who dare cite,
as we forgive our debtors, Death?

Abelard and Eloise,
Henry the Fowler, Charlemagne,
Genee, Lopokova, all these
die, die in pain.

And General Grant and General Lee,
Patti and Florence Nightingale,
like Tyro and Antiope
drift among ghosts in Hell,

know nothing, are nothing, save a fume
driving across a mind
preoccupied with this: our doom
is, to be sifted by the wind,

heaped up, smoothed down like silly sands.
We are less permanent than thought.
The Emperor with the Gold Hands

is still a word, a tint, a tone,
when we ourselves are dead and gone
and the green grass growing over us.

(Readers are invited to tell the New Statesman who wrote this poem)

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie