Isn’t it illegal to disturb human remains?

The law strictly regulates the circumstances in which exhumations take place. Notifications and permissions have to be obtained for exhumations for forensic or family reasons. 

Once interred, human remains cannot be disturbed without lawful authority, which is an exhumation special licence from Ministry of Justice for unconsecrated land, or a faculty from the local Diocese for consecrated land. 

The requirement is defined by s25 of the Burial Act 1857. A licence is required even where remains are disturbed accidentally. Licenses have never been made available for the purpose of re-using a site for burial, although there are many instances of licenses being issued for the removal of bodies from churchyards to facilitate building, road-widening and other developments.

S25 of the Burial Act 1857 also allowed for exhumations to take place ‘from one consecrated place of burial to another by faculty granted by the ordinary for that purpose’ without need of a Ministry licence. Essentially, this meant that where an exhumation is taking place in consecrated ground, with any remains re-interred in consecrated ground, then faculty only is required. Under Church law, it has been possible to re-use churchyards for – in some instances – centuries. Each diocese sets its own ‘best practice’ guidelines on churchyard management.

The Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure 2014 has subsequently made changes to the Burial Act 1857. S2 of the Measure made a slight amendment to the wording of s25, which now allows for the disturbance of remains in churchyards and other consecrated ground without need for re-interment in consecrated ground. This change of wording permits a ‘lift and deepen’ approach to grave re-use in consecrated ground without a Ministry of Justice licence. This aspect of the Measure was enacted from January 2015. 

Ministry of Justice website provides information on the legalities of exhumation.