1852: The first Burial Acts

The first of the Burial Acts to be fully enacted was passed in 1852: An Act to Amend the Laws Concerning the Burial of the Dead in the Metropolis (15 & 16 Vict. c. 85). The powers of this act were extended beyond London by An Act to Amend the Laws Concerning the Burial of the Dead in England Beyond the Limits of the Metropolis, and to Amend the Act concerning the Burial of the Dead in the Metropolis (16 &17 Vict. c. 134).

These Acts constituted the foundation of Victorian cemetery provision: the vast majority of cemeteries established between 1852 and 1974 are ‘burial board’ cemeteries.

These Acts also established a clear framework for the closure of local churchyards. Communities were empowered to request an inspection by the Burials Office Inspector, who would personally visit and take evidence from witnesses. Formal closure by Order in Council was recorded in the London Gazette.

Chadwick’s had wanted to see a central, national response to burial need. The Burial Acts of 1852 and 1853 placed all decisions, initially, with local vestries. In the mid-19th century, vestries were central to the collection and deployment of local rates. The Burial Acts permitted each vestry, using a strictly framed democratic process, to vote to establish a burial board. Each board would then be able to raise funding to establish a new cemetery. Burial board cemeteries were laid out in their many hundreds, paid for through loans secured from the Public Works Loan Board and repaid out of the rates.

Burial Boards were made up of elected ratepayers that managed the cemetery through reference to government guidelines. There were rigid guidelines on how the meetings should be advertised, to ensure that all relevant parishes were fully informed of the proposal.

Major cities, comprising multiple parishes and multiple vestries, had more than one burial board.

The Burial Grounds (Scotland) Act 1855 comprised specific legislation for Scotland.

Many archive offices will have burial board records. These records vary considerably in extent. A good set of records will include material relating to churchyard closure, minute books, correspondence between the burial board and the Burials Office in London, and ephemera relating to the purchase of land.

Additional reading

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

This text offers the most detailed account to date of the Burial Acts in operation in England in over 200 villages and towns throughout North Yorkshire.

 Acts themselves can be useful sources: Schedule (A) of the Burial Act 1852 contains a list of all parishes in London and other locations in the capital where burial had been discontinued.

British History

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