Ministry of Justice burial licence form

Interview with Rekha Gohil, Ministry of Justice, on development and burials

MOLA team

Rekha Gohil works in the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) Coroners Burials, Cremation and Inquiries Policy Team. In this interview she demystifies the burial licence process and explains what developers need to consider when thinking about developing on a known burial ground.

Q. So what are burial licences and what is the MoJ role?

A. Human remains which are buried and then uncovered or disturbed are protected by law. The Secretary of State for Justice has a number of responsibilities and duties under burial legislation, contained within section 25 of the Burial Act 1857, and the Disused Burial Grounds Act 1884 (Amended in 1981) Act. Under delegated authority the MoJ’s Coroners, Burials, Cremation and Inquiries Team carry out these functions.

Q. What licences are needed to excavate a known burial ground?

A. Burial grounds fall into a number of categories. They may be operational or disused, consecrated by the Church of England or otherwise. There must always be a licence from the MoJ when human remains are to be disturbed, under any circumstances, except where the remains are in ground consecrated by the Church of England. In these cases, a special authorisation known as a Faculty is required instead the Church of England.

There are two kinds of licence granted by the MoJ, a licence for a named individual, and a licence for archaeological/ development purposes to authorise the disturbance or exhumation of unknown human remains buried over 100 years. It is the latter that developers need to consider.

Q. Who should apply for the licence?

A. Anyone can apply for a burial licence and an archaeologist can apply for a licence on behalf of a developer. In the case of an archaeological project where human remains may be discovered a licence should be obtained to cover the site. This allows for the remains to be removed lawfully and avoid delays to the project. If remains are discovered during the course of development work, an archaeologist should be engaged to make sure the remains are properly removed, and treated with due care and attention to decency.

Q. When applying for a licence (for archaeological purposes), what information needs to be supplied?

A. A MoJ application form needs to be completed to exhume unknown buried human remains over 100 years old. The form, to exhume for archaeological purposes, has six sections, which cover:

1. Details of the applicant
2. Details of the site to be covered by the licence
3. Details about the human remains
4. Any objections to disturbing/exhuming the human remains e.g. for religious reasons
5. Details of what will happen to the remains
6. A declaration that the information provided is accurate

The form contains a number of more specific questions. For example, question 23 asks for brief details of the planned programme of excavation, the relevant experience and qualification of the applicant, the source of funding and whether resources are in place to cover post-excavation assessment, analysis, dissemination, archive deposition or reburial.

Q. How long does it take to get approval?

A. The MoJ aims to provide a licence within 20 working days. If the licence is urgent, for example remains have been unexpectedly discovered, we try to authorise the licence more quickly to prevent delays. Each application is considered on its merits and we will only authorise a licence when we are content that we have all the necessary information.

Q. What stipulations does a licence typically include?

A. Licences contain conditions requiring attention to decency, screening of the remains from public gaze, the involvement of the local Environmental Health Officer (where human tissue is/ may be present) and details of what must happen to the remains and by what deadline.

Licence for the exhumation of human remains for archaeological or development purposes are  authorised for two years, but application can be made for an extension of time e.g. if there has been a change of circumstances. Other licence conditions can also be amended on application e.g. to the location of reinternment or depository.

Q. What tips do you have to ensure that the process runs smoothly?

A. Receiving applications for licences before the work begins is really helpful. The earlier the application is received the more likely that the MoJ will be able to review it and, if all is in place, issue a licence before the work begins. This prevents delays if the archaeological team finds human remains and gives the MoJ reassurance that any remains will be treated with due care and attention to decency and that their final resting place has already been considered.

We also advise that developers to undertake as much research on the site as possible before applying.

Q. What should be done if human remains are found unexpectedly on site?

A. Work should stop immediately. Where human remains are found on an archaeological dig it is more than likely to be an historic find and the MoJ should be contacted. Where human remains are found during normal building works, the police need to be informed.

To get advice on a development site please get in toucb on or for further legal guidance, contact the MoJ’s Coroners, Burials, Cremation and Inquiries Policy team telephone 020 3334 3555 or email

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