A multi-faith cemetery will have all its graves aligned with Mecca, despite Christian burials traditionally facing east. Chris Birkle finds out how Christians and Muslims feel about the controversial council decision
In today’s secular society you could be forgiven for not knowing which direction Christian graves face.
Ancient tradition shows they should look east in anticipation of the second coming of Jesus Christ.
But all headstones at the new £2.5m High Wood Cemetery in Bulwell will be plotted to face north-east, in line with Islamic faith.
Muslims believe the dead look over their shoulder towards Mecca, towards the south-east.
Despite there being separate sections at the cemetery in Low Wood Road for different faiths, the council wanted to give a tidy, linear appearance.
Only on special request can families have graves with headstones facing in a different direction.
The controversial decision was taken after consultation with the city’s Cemeteries Consultative Committee.
And it has sparked huge debate among city faith leaders.
The Rev David Gray, from St John’s Church, Bulwell, said: “All faiths should have their beliefs respected.
“It would be wrong to stipulate one over the other, especially in our climate of trying to be sensitive of other people’s beliefs.
“It is an evolving cemetery and should be made for people of all faiths and certainly people of Christian faiths.
“For some people it doesn’t matter, but for those who prefer that they are facing east it is important.”
The cemetery is Nottingham’s first for the last 85 years and will provide enough space for the next 40 years.
Covering 40 acres, it will replace the nearby Northern Cemetery, in Bulwell, and the Southern Cemetery, in Wilford Hill, which are both running out of land.
“Perhaps as the cemetery evolves there could be some sort of alteration,” said Mr Gray. “I hope that that would be the case, so those of the Christian faith, just like anybody, would not feel excluded from their faith.”
The cemetery opened on July 3 and has capacity for about 13,500 adult graves.
It has a Chinese section intended for those of both Christian and Buddhist faiths and an area for the burial of babies and children.
Rachel Farmer, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham, said: “Positioning all the graves in the direction of Mecca conflicts with the long-standing Christian burial tradition of graves facing towards the east. We believe the people of Nottingham should have the opportunity to follow the Christian burial traditions if they choose to and the Christian faith should not be discriminated against in this way.
“The 2001 census showed that more than 70% of the population consider themselves Christian.
“This new policy will limit the choice of the majority in relation to burials at this new cemetery.
“We totally support an inclusive policy for graveyards, which takes into account the religious traditions of all faiths, but this should not be done to the exclusion of another.”
Raza Ul Haq, Imam at the Madni Masjid Mosque, in Gladstone Street, Forest Fields, said: “It is part of our religion for dead bodies to face Mecca. It is very important.
“If for the Christians, this is part of their religion that they should be facing towards somewhere else, then we are 200% in support of them. It is our job to help and support them. If that is their requirement, then we will be supporting the Christians.”
People have the option of simple woodland graves in shady glades with no headstone, and these can face any direction.
Steve Dowling, services director for Environment and Public Protection, said many graves in Nottingham often do not follow the tradition of facing east.
He said: “High Wood is a large and beautiful site with room to meet everyone’s needs.
“In the first phase of development it has been agreed that the graves will face north east.
“For people of the Muslim faith this fits in with a religious requirement, but it will also ensure a tidy appearance for the site as a whole.
“Consultation with a wide variety of groups will continue as the cemetery evolves and there will be an opportunity to consider any suggestions and special wishes.”
Lincoln City Council’s policy is for all Christian graves to face east. “If we were to have a new cemetery, if it is possible, that’s the way they would be facing,” said a spokeswoman.
Derby City Council said it faces all graves in the direction appropriate for their religion.
A spokesman said: “We don’t have any problems accommodating both Christian and Muslim burials. They don’t face the same way. The plots are allocated separately. Our policy is to accommodate both religions.”
A spokeswoman for Leicester City Council said that Christian burials used to point east but because of a lack of space they are now dug in various directions.
At High Wood Cemetery, six burials have taken place so far three of which were Muslim.
About 15% of the cemetery will be for Islamic graves.
There is no extra charge for east to west burials, but if graves take up more space or involve extra maintenance, there is an extra charge.
Steve Dowling, services director for Environment and Public Protection, said: “
“Anyone can be buried any way round they like, just as they always could be. We have offered to meet with representatives of the Diocese of Southwell and will work with them to accommodate their wishes.”