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25 March 2010
Shocking revelations that Southwark has buried up to 30 babies in a single grave have led to a change in policy at the council.
Seventy-one still-born babies and one older baby were buried in "mass graves" in the borough last year.
The communal graves are given to those people who cannot afford to pay for individual plots and those who die penniless and with no relatives.
Southwark Council has now signed up to a charter, committing it to limit the number of babies to a grave to only four - laid side by side instead of on top of each other.
A Southwark Council spokesperson told the 'News' that there had only been one mass grave in the borough with 30 babies buried in it, while the others were normally filled with fifteen.
The charter, launched by the a London paper last week, also commits the authority to sealing the communal graves in between burials - since it takes time to fill them - and to giving parents the choice of private or communal burials or cremation.
But on Saturday the 'News' discovered a mass baby grave covered with just a wooden board at Camberwell New Cemetery. The spokesperson said: "If a public grave is not full, it will be suitably backfilled with soil up to two feet below ground level with a weighted board placed over the site, until the site is used again."
Six months ago parents of a boy who died days after birth and buried in Wandsworth were contacted by police and told his body had been dug up by a fox. His cardboard coffin had decomposed and a fox had burrowed down and dragged away the body, which was never found.
But Southwark Council has had no similar disappearances and said that its policy of "backfilling" the graves with soil up to two feet below ground level was in the spirit of the charter and enough to stop animal interference.
Cllr Paul Kyriacou, Executive Member for Environment, said: "Although we have always carried out burial services with dignity, following the story we - like lots of other councils - have decided to sign up to the charter. We face the challenge of having two major hospitals nearby and very limited space at our cemeteries, but, this is too important an issue to ignore."
Local funeral director Barry Albin said that in his view the common graves were a necessary option. "There are people who would be opposed to being cremated, so having a public grave gives people the option at not too great an expense.
"I think we have made huge steps forward in burial of foetuses and children. Sometime ago the burial of foetuses was not required and they were classed as clinical waste."
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