1867: Consecration of Churchyards Act

As burial boards throughout the country were establishing new cemeteries, churchyards were also being expanded to accommodate additional burial need.  A study of North Yorkshire found that 256 separate instances of extension took place amongst the 273 churchyards.

The Consecration of Churchyards Act (31 & 32 Vict. c.133) aimed to simplify the bureaucracy of churchyard extension and reduce the legal fees associated with moving land into Church ownership. The Act also contained an important clause: that anyone choosing to donate land to be used as an extension – whether attached to the existing churchyard, or ‘detached’ and elsewhere – could retain one sixth of the land for their own exclusive use. This was a particularly attractive inducement to larger landowners who were no longer able to bury within the church itself. Churchyard extensions often contain a large, railed enclosure with particularly grand memorials. Churchyard extensions continued through the course of the twentieth century, and this legislation remains in force.

As with the decision to establish a cemetery, extending the churchyard becomes a point in time when communities are actively engaged in assessing their local burial space, and this gives us valuable information on what burial space ‘means’.

It is often evident in viewing a churchyard that an extension has been added. Using successive OS maps is a good indicator of whether a churchyard boundary changed and can help to pinpoint a possible date. Vestry minutes will often contain quite detailed information when a churchyard is extended, and the archives might contain related reports and other legal documents including ‘Sentences of Consecration’ (see image above).  The cost could be substantial since even if land was donated a wall had to be built.       


Additional reading

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

This text discusses churchyard extension in detail in parishes across North Yorkshire and indicates the wealth of primary documentation that is available.

British History

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