When two Muslim families discovered their dead relatives had had strangers buried on top of them during the first lockdown, a campaign started to resolve a longstanding “oversight” about the deeds of graves.

Following an investigation, Monty Meghjee, whose 76-year-old uncle Basheer was laid to rest at the cemetery after he died from Covid-19 on March 25 last year, exposed the fact that not one family had ever been granted a Deed of Grant of Exclusive Right of Burial.

Instead, families have purchased burial rights from the BW Foundation; the organisation that leases the Muslim-side of the cemetery from Three Rivers District Council.

Two-tier burials

Just 12 days after his burial on March 27, his family were unaware that the grave was opened up so that the corpse of an unrelated stranger could share the same grounds.

The Meghjee family had signed a document that consented to a two-tier burial but they never once believed it would happen and signed the document because they wanted the burial to take place as quickly as possible, as is the practice in the Islam. 

This meant that graves in the Muslim section of the cemetery – run by charity BW Foundation - could be reopened for a second body to be buried there if there was a shortage of plots due to a rise of deaths.

The policy was introduced on March 16. The policy states the “emergence of the Covid-19 virus is expected to escalate demand for grave spaces significantly”.

The Meghjee family challenged the two-tier policy in the High Court but the policy was found to be “entirely lawful”.

However, the council has acknowledged the “considerable upset” among a section of its Muslim community, with the Meghjee family unhappy that they had not been informed first that Basheer’s grave would be opened.

Basheer Meghjee was buried at Woodcock Hill Cemetery (Photo: Family handout)

Basheer Meghjee was buried at Woodcock Hill Cemetery (Photo: Family handout)

The two-tier burial policy was scrapped on June 27 following a request by the council – but another affected family allege the council did not act quickly enough to stop a two-tier burial taking place on June 25. 

A historic issue with grave plot ownership

Mr Meghjee believes that had the family had a Deed of Grant of Exclusive Burial Rights, the two-tier burial would never have happened.

The lack of this deed of grant, tracing back 33 years, only affected the Muslim section of the cemetery under management of the BW Foundation, while Three Rivers District Council – which runs the non-Muslim side – offers an Exclusive Right of Burial for 100 years - although this is not compulsory.

The exclusive right of burial gives the purchaser the right to decide who can be buried in a grave and who can open a grave.

Instead, the BW Foundation held the deeds for the around 700 Muslim grave-plots in use.

Since 1988, the foundation has paid a total price of £361,720 for 954 burial plots, with around 700 plots in use, and according to Mr Meghjee, described themselves as "owners of the graves".

The shared grave of Basheer Meghjee (Photo: Family handout)

The shared grave of Basheer Meghjee (Photo: Family handout)

Mr Meghjee said: “There was an oversight, that oversight led to 700 families not receiving it (the deeds), that same oversight led to a two-tier burial. If they were issuing it properly that would have never happened."

He equated holding the deed to buying a flat, stating it is an ownership document and “there should never be a question” whether the family should hold it.

The council says the foundation has agreed to surrender the deeds of exclusive rights of burial in respect of the Muslim Section back to the council and the council will then issue deeds to individual purchasers on request. 

Campaign for deeds

Cllr Paula Hiscocks, who represents Rickmansworth Town, has backed a campaign launched by Mr Meghjee to find a solution to reclaim the grave deeds for all families.

Increased pressures from media coverage of the two-tier burial issue, and constant writing to the councils appear to have helped.

The Conservative councillor said in a video: “I have been shocked and appalled by the policy that allowed unrelated people to be buried in the same two-tier graves.

“This has since highlighted the facts that none of the 700 Muslim families whose relatives are buried at the Woodcock cemetery have ever received their burial deeds.

“Every non-Muslim family whose loved ones have been buried at Woodcock has received their deeds, as has every other family whose loved ones are buried in any other cemetery in the UK.

“The council has confirmed that these deeds will be issued, however to date, none have been issued.”

Woodcock Hill Cemetery (Photo: Street View)

Woodcock Hill Cemetery (Photo: Google Street View)

Speaking to the Watford Observer, she said: “I have continually been asking at council when families will receive the deeds but have been given no committed date. The families therefore have no security and lawful confirmation that they have leased their plots.

“I have to seriously ask the question if Batlers Wells (BW) Foundation are suitable holders of the lease of this public land when they have treated our residents with such disdain.”

After releasing the video encouraging families to write to the council, more than 100 people have requested the rights to the deeds.

Mr Meghjee says many families have been informed the council will commence issuing deeds in the next couple of weeks.

Watford Observer: Cllr Paula HiscocksCllr Paula Hiscocks

A district council spokesperson said: “The council granted the exclusive rights of burial in this part of the cemetery to BWF. So they hold, and continue to hold, the deeds. Families wishing to obtain a deed should therefore contact BWF, from whom they purchased the grave space, not the council.

“Nevertheless, we asked BWF to surrender their deeds of EROB back to the council so that we can then grant them to the families requesting them. BWF have agreed to do this and the legal process to formalise this is ongoing, but as with any complex legal process, it takes time.”

The BW Foundation was also contacted, but the Watford Observer has not received a response.

The problems that remain

Although there is progress, Mr Meghjee says there are still very clear issues that need addressing.

He believes the solution of making everyone write in is effective in making a change, but there are at least 600 families still not aware that they can claim their deeds by writing in.

Mr Meghjee suggested that the council should create a simplified form online to explain the situation and request deeds – and the council should actively reach out to families.

Furthermore, Mr Meghjee is set to receive a joint-deed instead of a singular deed, meaning that the two-tier burial at his uncle’s plot will not be reversed, and a stranger will remain on top of his uncle’s grave.

While there is no clear way to resolve this, Mr Meghjee is dedicated to continue his efforts in separating the two graves.

Three Rivers District Council suggests that to obtain a deed, families should contact the BW Foundation.

However, as proven by Mr Meghjee’s and Cllr Hiscock’s campaign, there has been a proven effect by contacting cemeteries@threerivers.gov.uk