Alison Killing: What happens when a city runs out of room for its dead Dec 2015
So, I have an overlooked but potentially lucrative investment opportunity for you. Over the past 10 years in the UK, the return on burial plots has outperformed the UK property market by a ratio of around three to one. There are private cemeteries being set up with plots for sale to investors, and they start at around 3,900 pounds. And they're projected to achieve about 40 percent growth. The biggest advantage is that this is a market with continuous demand.
Now, this is a real proposition, and there are companies out there that really are offering this investment, but my interest in it is quite different. I'm an architect and urban designer, and for the past year and a half, I've been looking at approaches to death and dying and at how they've shaped our cities and the buildings within them.
So in the summer, I did my first exhibition on death and architecture in Venice, and it was called "Death in Venice." And because death is a subject that many of us find quite uncomfortable to talk about, the exhibition was designed to be quite playful, so that people would literally engage with it. So one of our exhibits was an interactive map of London which showed just how much of the real estate in the city is given over to death. As you wave your hand across the map, the name of the piece of real estate -- the building or the cemetery -- is revealed. And those white shapes that you can see, they're all of the hospitals and hospices and mortuaries and cemeteries in the city. In fact, the majority are cemeteries. We wanted to show that, even though death and burial are things that we might not think about, they're all around us, and they're important parts of our cities.
So about half a million people die in the UK each year, and of those, around a quarter will want to be buried. But the UK, like many Western European countries, is running out of burial space, especially in the major cities. And the Greater London Authority has been aware of this for a while, and the main causes are population growth, the fact that existing cemeteries are almost full. There's a custom in the UK that graves are considered to be occupied forever, and there's also development pressure -- people want to use that same land to build houses or offices or shops.
So they came up with a few solutions. They were like, well, maybe we can reuse those graves after 50 years. Or maybe we can bury people, like, four deep, so that four people can be buried in the same plot, and we can make more efficient use of the land that way, and in that way, hopefully London will still have space to bury people in the near future.
But, traditionally, cemeteries haven't been taken care of by the local authority. In fact, the surprising thing is that there's no legal obligation on anyone in the UK to provide burial space. Traditionally, it's been done by private and religious organizations, like churches and mosques and synagogues. But there's also occasionally been a for-profit group who has wanted to get in on the act. And, you know, they look at the small size of a burial plot and that high cost, and it looks like there's serious money to be made.
So, actually, if you want to go out and start your own cemetery, you kind of can. There was this couple in South Wales, and they had a farmhouse and a load of fields next to it, and they wanted to develop the land. They had a load of ideas. They first thought about making a caravan park, but the council said no. And then they wanted to make a fish farm and again the council said no. Then they hit on the idea of making a cemetery and they calculated that by doing this, they could increase the value of their land from about 95,000 pounds to over one million pounds.
But just to come back to this idea of making profit from cemeteries, like, it's kind of ludicrous, right? The thing is that the high cost of those burial plots is actually very misleading. They look like they're expensive, but that cost reflects the fact that you need to maintain the burial plot -- like, someone has to cut the grass for the next 50 years. That means it's very difficult to make money from cemeteries. And it's the reason that normally they're run by the council or by a not-for-profit group. But anyway, the council granted these people permission, and they're now trying to build their cemetery.
So just to explain to you kind of how this works: If I want to build something in the UK, like a cemetery for example, then I have to apply for planning permission first. So if I want to build a new office building for a client or if I want to extend my home or, you know, if I have a shop and I want to convert it into an office, I have to do a load of drawings, and I submit them to the council for permission. And they'll look at things like how it fits in the surroundings. So they'll look at what it looks like. But they'll also think about things like what impact is it going to have on the local environment? And they'll be thinking about things like, is this thing going to cause pollution or is there going to be a lot of traffic that wants to go to this thing that I've built? But also good things. Is it going to add local services like shops to the neighborhood that local people would like to use? And they'll weigh up the advantages and the disadvantages and they'll make a decision.
So that's how it works if I want to build a large cemetery. But what if I've got a piece of land and I just want to bury a few people, like five or six? Well, then -- actually, I don't need permission from anyone! There's actually almost no regulation in the UK around burial, and the little bit that there is, is about not polluting water courses, like not polluting rivers or groundwater. So actually, if you want to go and make your own mini-cemetery, then you can.
But I mean, like -- really, who does this? Right? Well, if you're an aristocratic family and you have a large estate, then there's a chance that you'll have a mausoleum on it, and you'll bury your family there. But the really weird thing is that you don't need to have a piece of land of a certain size before you're allowed to start burying people on it. And so that means that, technically, this applies to, like, the back garden of your house in the suburbs.
So what if you wanted to try this yourself at home? Well, there's a few councils that have guidance on their website which can help you.
So, the first thing that they tell you is that you need to have a certificate of burial before you can go ahead -- you're not allowed to just murder people and put them under the patio.
They also tell you that you need to keep a record of where the grave is. But that's pretty much it for formal requirements. Now, they do warn you that your neighbors might not like this, but, legally speaking, there's almost nothing that they can do about it. And just in case any of you still had that profit idea in your mind about how much those burial plots cost and how much money you might be able to make, they also warn that it might cause the value of your house to drop by 20 percent. Although, actually, it's more likely that no one will want to buy your house at all after that.
So what I find fascinating about this is the fact that it kind of sums up many of our attitudes towards death. In the UK, and I think that the figures across Europe are probably similar, only about 30 percent of people have ever talked to anyone about their wishes around death, and even for people over 75, only 45 percent of people have ever talked about this. And the reasons that people give ... you know, they think that their death is far off or they think that they're going to make people uncomfortable by talking about it. And you know, to a certain extent, there are other people out there who are taking care of things for us. The government has all this regulation and bureaucracy around things like burying a death, for example, and there's people like funeral directors who devote their entire working lives to this issue. But when it comes to our cities and thinking about how death fits in our cities, there's much less regulation and design and thought than we might imagine.
So we're not thinking about this, but all of the people we imagine are thinking about it -- they're not taking care of it either.