London Daily Mail, October 11, 2007
A row has erupted over a plan to dig up a third of a million bodies from an historic east London cemetery to make way for a new Muslim burial site.
Tower Hamlets council in London is considering reopening the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park in Mile End to answer a long-running campaign for a Muslim graveyard in the area.
The park, off Bow Common Lane, was deconsecrated as a Church of England cemetery by Parliament in 1966, after being deemed full with about 350,000 bodies buried there.
It is not yet clear what the Council proposes to do with the remains, if they are ultimately removed from the graves and a new burial site built in their place.
Council sources have said the plans are not yet at a stage where this has been properly considered.
But already opponents to the proposal are lining up. They include the environmentalist and broadcaster, who is leading calls for the park to be kept as a wildlife haven.
The botanist, who is patron of a charity that acts as the guardian of the graveyard, said he will ‘pray that the wisdom of all faiths’ prevails in the decision over the cemetery’s future.
The other options are to find land outside Tower Hamlets or redevelop the Bow Common gas works.
The Labour-controlled council had asked officers to find ways of opening a Muslim-only cemetery—but lawyers warned them that would be illegal.
The authority then examined the possibility of a multi-faith site, clearing existing graves to create a new cemetery with an area set aside for Muslim burials.
But now outraged East Enders have declared “there is no way we’ll allow them to dig up our ancestors”.
They have bombarded their local paper, the East London Advertiser, with protests against the plan to exhume 350,000 graves dating back to 1841, including those of the children of Dr Barnardo.
Religious leaders and politicians have also reacted angrily.
Tower Hamlets Tory group leader Peter Golds said no new cemetery had been opened in an inner city area for decades.
Cllr Golds insisted: “Of course, there must be respect for the recent dead and for those who mourn, but this proposal will cause untold damage to community cohesion in a borough that seriously wants for tranquil open space.”
Labour’s Poplar and Canning Town MP Jim Fitzpatrick said: “The cemetery is a very special piece of green space and I would personally want to examine very carefully any proposal to change that.”
The Rev Alan Green, chair of the Tower Hamlets Inter-Faith Forum and dean for the borough, said the former Church of England graveyard was not an ‘appropriate’ place for a new cemetery.
Rev Green said: “The Church supports the move to ensure suitable future provision for the burial and cremation needs for all local residents.
“However, we do not believe that the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is an appropriate location due to the emotional, practical and ecological issues of removing thousands of bodies and destroying an important wildlife centre.
“Therefore, we hope that we can work with the council and other faith groups to find a more suitable alternative.”
Even Respect group leader Abjol Miah, who has been at the forefront of calls for a Muslim cemetery, opposed the blueprint.
Mr Miah said: “The Bow cemetery is an historic site and a nature reserve and therefore appears not to be an appropriate place.
“However, there is an urgent need for new cemetery facilities for Tower Hamlets residents.
“The lack of such facilities affects everyone, and is pressing because many, including most Muslims, prefer to bury their loved ones.”
But defending the plan, Labour’s environment spokesman in Tower Hamlets, Abdal Ullah, said: “To preserve the respect and dignity for everyone, I think most of the graves would have to be cleared out and we’d start afresh.”
He said a corner of the cemetery would be reserved for Muslims who are buried in shrouds at a depth of 6ft and on their side facing Mecca.
With the fast-changing demographics of Tower Hamlets, the cemetery would be pre-dominantly Muslim.
Re-opening the cemetery would require an Act of Parliament—involving widespread public consultation and scrutiny but by law, any graves more than 75 years old can be removed.