A VICAR has warned “space is running out” for burying the dead amid a planning dispute over the extension of Llanrhos cemetery following coronavirus deaths.

Reverend Samuel Erlandson, mission area leader for Aberconwy, said ecological concerns over cemetery extensions are causing a dilemma for churches across the country, and that while cemeteries can promote biodiversity, cremation is one of several solutions that need to be considered.

His intervention comes after inflammatory comments by Conwy County Borough Council member Andrew Hinchliff that “everyone should be cremated and thrown in the sea for all I care” during a planning committee meeting to discuss extending Llanrhos Lawn Cemetery by 1,600 burial plots. The plan would use an adjacent 0.87-hectare parcel of land currently used for grazing horses.

The proposal, which follows a report in March that four of Conwy’s 11 cemeteries were already up to capacity, has prompted a number of objections from residents because the site is ‘green wedge’ land that is a designated special landscape area.

North Wales Pioneer: A view of the land to be used for almost 1,600 extra burial plots at Llanrhos cemetery, Llandudno Picture: Planning presentation/CCBC.A view of the land to be used for almost 1,600 extra burial plots at Llanrhos cemetery, Llandudno Picture: Planning presentation/CCBC.

The matter is complicated by the fact that people are entitled under common law to be buried at a church or cemetery in their parish, which is not possible if burial plots are no longer available.

“There is quite a tension because, from a Christian point of view, we are charged with stewardship of the Earth and looking after God’s creation, so ecological issues are incredibly important,” said Reverend Erlandson. “But at the same time have a tradition to look after, bury and care for the dead. It is a tradition that has involved burial but we have to realise that space is running out.

“A difficult point is, how long we can sustain burial of the dead?

“Personally, I don’t think any flippant comment in the chamber is appropriate in light of our responsibility to the dead and their families. Even if you are not religious, the ritual matters an awful lot to people.

“One of the issues is that when you detach yourself from death it’s quite easy to come up with very logical solution to the problem, but when you look at individual stories the pastoral need can outweigh other needs.”

Reverend Erlandson, who relocated from the Wrexham mission area last year, said he had expected the cemetery extension to go ahead “by Christmas”. There were similar burial space concerns in Wrexham, which resulted in disputes over whether people who had moved further away within the parish area were entitled to be buried in the churchyard.

The vicar said that while he understands ecological concerns over the extension in the instance of Llanrhos cemetery, he does not believe it would come at a cost to biodiversity.

“Because the cemetery is full there are no cremation plots available until next year,” he said. “From that perspective, it can’t be done quick enough. I was surprised there had been objections as I thought it would be done by Christmas.

“I don’t see why a cemetery has to be at odds with the environment – if you were planning a housing estate then I might understand, but a cemetery can be a good ecological place that promotes local birds, insects and wildflowers.

“St Hilary’s churchyard is a thriving example of how such a space can be used for wildflowers, beehives and tons of birdfeed being used. It is just as much a garden as it is site of burial of the dead.

“It is a beautiful idea that we could be buried at a place that is bursting with life.”

The father-of-four said there is the possibility that burial graves could be reused after 100 years, as currently practised at City of London Cemetery, however there are significant “pastoral”, ethical and logistical issues to consider.

Due to the unexpected loss of life and restrictions on funeral services during the pandemic, there needs to be greater consideration of the commemoration of deceased loved ones impacts the family members they leave behind, he said.

“We have seen over the last 18 months that people were not even able to attend relatives’ funerals, not able to spend their last few hours with a dying relative, having to go into hospital unaccompanied by friend or families, and people spent their last hours on Earth alone,” said Reverend Erlandson. “We are just seeing the effect this is going to have on the mental health of our society

“We have to be mindful of ecological concerns, and what we do with dead, but also be mindful of the human need to deal with a significant life event, whether that is from faith perspective or not.”