Human Remains
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Human Remains

Human Remains and Cathedrals

There are frequently Christian burials both within and around a cathedral. Some cathedral precincts also include ancient sites which may contain pre-Christian burials. This makes it very likely that below-ground works to cathedrals will encounter and disturb human remains from a range of periods.

Human remains principles

Human remains have a special position in ecclesiastical and secular law.

The underlying principles are that:

  • human remains should always be treated with dignity and respect
  • burials should not be disturbed without good reason. However it may be necessary to disturb burials in advance of properly authorised development
  • human remains and the archaeological evidence around them are important sources of scientific information
  • particular weight should be given to the feelings and views of living family members, when known
  • decisions should be made in the public interest, and in an accountable way.

Disarticulated bones (other than charnel deposits) can normally be carefully collected by general contractors for subsequent reburial. However, where articulated human remains are discovered, or predicted to be discovered, project teams should always include a competent professional archaeologist experienced in church archaeology. This should be either the cathedral archaeologist or an archaeological contractor briefed and monitored by him/her.

Human remains and the law

Any work materially affecting human remains in or under the cathedral church or within its precinct requires prior approval under the Care of Cathedrals Measure 2011 Part 2 (1) (a) (iv). Work involving disturbance or destruction of such human remains needs the approval of the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England (CFCE) and more minor work needs the approval of the cathedral’s Fabric Advisory Committee (FAC). For guidance on the approval procedures click here.

Until the end of 2014 the removal of human remains within cathedral precincts also required a Ministry of Justice exhumation licence under the Burial Act 1857, but this requirement has now been lifted. On 1 January 2015 amendments to the 1857 Burial Act came into force with the effect that an exhumation licence will no longer be required, provided that approval has been obtained under the Care of Cathedrals Measure.

For works affecting Scheduled Monuments within cathedral precincts, Scheduled Monument Consent will also be required. This can be applied for through the local Historic England team.

Further guidance

See the joint Church of England/English Heritage publication Guidance for best practice for human remains excavated from Christian burial grounds in England (revised, 2017) for detailed advice on the ethical, archaeological, scientific and legal considerations. Following this guidance will normally be a condition of any permission under the Care of Cathedrals Measure to disturb human remains. A copy can be downloaded from the APABE website

More detailed guidance on dealing with church and cathedral archaeology was produced by the Association of Diocesan and Cathedral Archaeologists (ADCA) and is available at http://churcharchaeology.org/ADCA.html

The Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England (APABE) has produced guidelines on the destructive sampling of human remains Science and the Dead: A guideline for the destructive sampling of archaeological human remains for scientific analysis (2013).

For individual queries please contact:

  • (general archaeological issues) Dr Joseph Elders, Major Projects Officer, Cathedrals and Church Buildings Division, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or telephone 020 7898 1875
  • (cathedral planning issues, Care of Cathedrals Measure) Anne Locke, Cathedrals Officer, Cathedrals and Church Buildings Division, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or telephone 020 7898 1862.