GARY BURKS is Superintendent & Registrar of the City of London Cemetery & Crematorium. It was moved to East London in 1856 after the City’s graveyards became too full.

Any comments - or a suggestion for a London secret? Please e-mail me.

City Cemetery Manager

How long have you worked at the cemetery?
For 25 years. I came here for three months as a stop-gap between jobs.

Does the job make you think about death a lot?
No, but I can understand why it could affect people in that way. If it does, it’s probably not the right job for you. But you can’t get away here from the fact that life is finite and we never know when death is going to strike. I’ve buried everyone from a premature baby to a 107-year-old woman.

Which funeral has affected you the most?
Anyone will say it’s children’s funerals. Not the tiny babies, but the kids of six or seven – that’s horrible. Very sad, especially if you have kids of your own.

How many people are buried here?
150,000 or so graves, so about 600,00 burials. That’s not including the churchyards of London where the dead have been re-interred here. If you add in cremations, we have probably hit the million mark by now.

What’s the limit?
This site has been open 150 years and is the best part of full up. In London, we have legislation to re-use graves, so the capacity could be infinite; it’s how we manage that. I’d encourage the acceptance of re-use. It’s something that fell out of favour in Victorian times as a reaction to the poor burial conditions of the time. But everywhere else in Europe, graves are re-used very regularly.

Have you made a decision for yourself?
It doesn’t matter to me. My dad was cremated a few months ago but that was his choice. I’d rather it was something my loved ones want - that they feel comfortable with. I wouldn’t want them attending a grave they don’t want to.

With cremation, do people worry they are not getting the right ashes?
A name card follows the person through the process and each body is cremated completely separated. We guarantee the remains are the right ones. After a cremation, you have a reasonably intact skeleton of calcified bones, which is raked into a container and then pulverised in a steel drum. Any metals - things like artificial hip joints - left are sent to a refiner and the money goes to a charity.

Tell us some trivia about the cemetery.
About 70 people work here, 26 of them gardeners. There are 3,000 trees, 25,000 roses. It has Grade I Listed status as a landscape and has several Grade II Listed buildings. There are seven miles of roads in 200 acres.

What’s your favourite part of London?
Tower Bridge. The first time I crossed it was in the 1995 London Marathon.

Where’s your secret part of London?
The garden of St Paul’s Cathedral. I wandered into St Paul’s a few year ago when choir practice was on, which was really lovely. London is full of history and I’m proud to be part of it.

Gary Burks


Ashes to ashes