1880: Burial Laws Amendment Act

The history of burial in 19th century England is a history of religious-political turmoil. New cemetery provision had its origins in the desire for Nonconformists to create burial space that was independent of the Church of England. The Burial Acts ensured that every cemetery created under the Acts remained half-unconsecrated so that burial could take place with rites other than the Church of England burial service.

However, cemetery provision was not uniform across the country and in many rural locations the use of the Anglican churchyard was the only available option. According to Canon law, those who had not been baptised according to the Trinity, as Canon law required – could be excluded from the churchyard. Some Anglican ministers used this requirement punitively, and denied burial to certain Nonconformists including Quakers, Baptists and Unitarians.

Relations between Anglicans and Nonconformists could be remarkably sour at national and local level. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a number of high-profile cases with vicars preventing some burials. The issue brought England to the edge of disestablishing the Church of England as the state church. Nonconformists argued that if they could not conduct funerals in the churchyard, the Church of England was not the Church for the whole country.

A page from a burial register with one row indicating that the burial took place 'under the Act'.

The Burial Laws Amendment Act, passed in 1880, introduced a compromise and allowed ministers of any denomination to take funeral services in the churchyard. At local level, this concession could create tension and even evasion from Anglican clergy and Anglican landowners who had contributed land to extend the churchyard.

Parish burial registers sometimes indicate that a burial has taken place ‘under the Burial Laws Amendment Act’, which means that a Nonconformist minister has officiated.

Additional reading

R. Fletcher (1974) The Akenham Burial Case, London: Wildwood House.

This is a detailed history one notorious case of a vicar refusing burial. The incident became a national scandal.

 J. Rugg (2013) Churchyard and Cemetery: Tradition and Modernity in Rural North Yorkshire, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

This text outlines the operation of the Burial Laws Amendment Act across parishes in rural North Yorkshire. See also: 

J. Rugg (2014) ‘The Burial Laws Amendment Act of 1880 and strategies of evasion in rural North Yorkshire’, Northern History, 51: 1, 113-30.

British History

Search the bibliography for further material on 19th and 20th century cemetery and crematorium history.