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New guidelines for the treatment of human remains excavated from Christian burial grounds in England

Issued on behalf of English Heritage and the Church of England


Archaeologists, developers, clergy, museum staff, church organisations and scientists will benefit from a new set of guidelines which set out, for the first time in England, standards for the treatment of human remains excavated from Christian burial grounds.


The document ‘Guidance for best practice for treatment of human remains excavated from Christian burial grounds in England’ is published today (25 January 2005) jointly by English Heritage and the Church of England.  It is the product of three years’ deliberations by a Working Group convened jointly by these two organisations. 


The report describes the current legal framework for the treatment of human remains and makes recommendations within this framework.  It considers religious and ethical issues, public attitudes, and the value and benefit of the scientific study of human remains, and recognises the need for a balanced and sensitive approach. 


The Guidance Document sets out best practice in five key areas:

  • continuing burial;
  • development of burial grounds;
  • research excavation;
  • excavation, study and publication; and
  • reburial and deposition.

The Working Group felt that burials should not be disturbed without good cause, but it recognised that the demands of the modern world often mean that it is necessary to disturb burials in advance of development.  The Group emphasised that human remains should always be treated with respect and dignity.  Although most burials recovered archaeologically are of unknown identity, it was felt that when buried remains were of known personal identity, the feelings of living descendants, when known, should be accorded strong weight regarding decisions concerning their treatment.


Speaking at the launch of the Guidance Document, the Bishop of Sodor and Man, the Rt Revd Graeme Knowles, who chairs The Council for the Care of Churches, said, “It is important for the Church to have a set of guidelines to inform decision-making at the parish level. We are pleased that these guidelines not only reflect our theological stance, but our concern at finding the appropriate balance between very different and conflicting needs.


“They will be of particular use to the Church’s incumbents, parochial church councils and cathedral authorities in their day-to-day work involving making changes to the property. They will help to defuse a lot of anxiety as to whether the right decisions have been taken.”


A major practical recommendation is that a standing national advisory committee be set up jointly by English Heritage and the Church of England.  This committee would comprise clergy, archaeologists and other professionals involved with human remains.  It would be available to be called upon to offer advice on any aspect of the treatment of human remains from Christian burial sites, particularly in cases which are problematic or controversial. 


Another controversial area covered by the guidelines is the reburial of excavated human remains.  There may be instances when, from the scientific point of view, it is desirable that a collection of skeletal material should remain accessible for research. But other parties with legitimate interests, such as the Church or local public opinion, desire that remains be returned to consecrated ground.  The guidelines suggest that a possible solution may be deposition of remains in disused crypts or redundant churches, and recommend that a working party be set up to pursue this option.


Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive, English Heritage, said: “This publication represents a landmark attempt in this country to tackle a complex and sensitive issue that concerns us all. The feelings of family members, ethical considerations, and the value of scientific study of human burials have all been taken into account in producing what we believe is a sensitive compromise.”


As well as providing guidance in the specific area of human remains from Christian burial sites, it is hoped that the document will stimulate debate on best practice for dealing with remains from a wider range of contexts. 


Dr Thurley continued: “We recognise that what we have done here is not comprehensive, but I hope this document will act to stimulate wider debate.  Initiatives such as this, which rely on collaboration and widespread consultation must surely point the way forward for tackling the complex array of issues raised by the treatment of human remains.”


Copies of the guidelines are available as a free download from the English Heritage website or Church of England  website by clicking this link

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