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DeceasedOnline (a database of UK burials and cremations) shows that my ancestor Ellen Wright (née Brown) was buried in Cheshunt Cemetery Hertfordshire in 1871, in grave reference 37AQ.

In February and March 1917, the same database records that two further infant burials took place in the same grave; I haven't been able to discover a family link to either of them.

What does this reuse of the grave tell me?

Burial Register Ellen Brown

  • Was there any apparent connection between the two infants buried in 1871, or do they appear to be unrelated? Is there any record of the undertaker(s) associated with the later interments? – Fortiter Jul 11 '13 at 5:22
  • @Fortiter, the two infants have no apparent connection (other than their respective father's were both in the Army, but you'd expect that in 1917). Their addresses were circa two miles apart, but this particular cemetery had a large 'catchment area'. No undertakers details. – user104 Jul 11 '13 at 9:09
  • @ColeValleyGirl - having seen the pages, I suspect I understand what's going on. Maybe. I have editted my answer - see from "Looking at the pair of pages from the register" onwards. – AdrianB38 Jul 11 '13 at 16:37
  • Anyone wanting to actually read the pages needs to save the the image of the pages to their own PC - 100% magnification there is much bigger than the image of the pages above. – AdrianB38 Jul 11 '13 at 16:39
  • @AdrianB38 I can zoom in while viewing the image in my browser. – user104 Jul 11 '13 at 16:42
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My initial suggestion would be that this is a "public" grave, i.e. one to which the right of burial was not owned by an individual but by the council.

Having said that, if you see nothing between 1871 and 1917, this seems an unlikely explanation as I would have thought a public grave would have been used for subsequent burials soon after the 1871 burial. Unless 37AQ is just a sub-plot within a big public plot that simply never got opened up again.

I've been trying to understand what the legal situation is with re-use in cemeteries - and that appears an unlikely explanation also! See this comment about re-use, which says "In London, local authorities have powers to reclaim a grave that has not been used for at least seventy five years, and use any space in the grave in which no interment has taken place" (my italics).

Looking at the pair of pages from the register, I believe that the explanation of what is probably (but not certainly) going on lies in the next to last column headed "If in Vault or Purchased Grave Space, No. of Grant". The 37AQ line in 1871 has no entry in that column. Therefore (setting aside the vault possibility, because @ColeValleyGirl says, from her visit, that it's a normal plot) the register indicates that this Grave Space (i.e. this plot) has not been purchased. So the council retained the right to use the plot again for another burial - which, in 1917, they exercised.

I have an inkling that in previous discussions in other places, I have seen suggestions that babies could be buried in convenient other graves. That seems to be the case here - they used a grave with room in it, to which they (the council) had the burial rights, and which had not been used for burial for 40-odd years. At least that way, the grieving parents were saved the expense of purchasing a plot.

In relation to my attempts just above to understand the legal situation with re-use - that situation does not apply, as re-use in that context must apply to grave plots where the right of burial is owned by someone other than the council concerned.

Caveat: My suggestions here are based purely on logic, not direct knowledge. This raises various questions such as

  • Were 'public' graves in cemeteries ever large plots? (I had envisaged something more like a mass-grave). Or were they simply normal sized plots?
  • Could someone erect a gravestone over a plot where they hadn't purchased the grave space?
| improve this answer | |
  • Having visited the cemetery, 37AQ (or where 37AQ should be if I had been able to find it conclusively) is just a normal-sized plot within an area of numerous marked graves (many with illegible markers). The page for the Register of Interments (now include din the question) that shows Ellen Wright being buried also shows 35AQ being used the day before and 36AQ being used a month later. The burial registers for the infants show that most burials at that time were happening in a different part of the cemetery, although 38AQ and 38AP was also used for child burials in Feb 1917. – user104 Jul 11 '13 at 9:31
  • I have another ancestor who was definitely buried in an "unpurchased grave -- that is a grave where there would be no marker" according to the present-day cemetery manager, in Llanbeblig public cemetery in North Wales. Six people were buried in the same plot over a period of ten months in 1926/1927; an unnamed child was also buried on the same date as the last named burial. This grave was one of a set of numbered plots in a grassed-over area of the cemetery. When I visited in 2012, the area had just been 'renovated' ready for use again. [contd.] – user104 Jul 11 '13 at 17:00
  • But Cheshunt seems to have all its graves in the area marked, albeit (as I said) illegibly. – user104 Jul 11 '13 at 17:13
  • Sounds like different rules and practices in different places. Presumably the only common factor would be that the right of burial remained with the council. Beyond that - interval between burial, erection of memorials, size of "plot", etc, might all change. – AdrianB38 Jul 11 '13 at 20:27
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The Cheshunt Cemetery description at Find-a-grave states that

"The cemetery contains around 15,200 graves with 26,000 interments. The cemetery is maintained by Broxbourne Services, the Council's in-house contractor, ..."

Clearly, many graves have multiple interments. It should be possible to query Broxbourne Services on the cemetery's definition of a plot (single, double) and the policies for plot ownership and transfer, and if these have changed since the earlier burials. Some possibilities: multiple sub-plots, the plot's owner authorized the infant burials, or somehow ownership lapsed or was transferred.

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One unfortunate possibility is that the register entries made in 1917 are erroneous. Your comment on another answer that most burials at that time were happening in a different part of the cemetery could mean that the two infants in question were also buried somewhere else and that an incorrect plot number was entered into the records.

There is a very real possibility that the cemetery was operating on a reduced complement of staff in 1917 and that those who were employed there were not experienced or well-qualified. When tempted to devise elaborate explanations for strange events, one should never rule out simple incompetence.

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  • I'd add the two other pages from the register but they would make the q too large. One baby is shown as 37AQ top end and one is shown as 37AQ bottom end. – user104 Jul 11 '13 at 13:00

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