A growing population and the influx of new customs have prompted a change in our attitudes towards burials and funerals, write John Heathfield and Percy Reboul

For centuries, the baptism, marriage and burial of the Christian population of Britain was centred almost exclusively around the church the parish church in particular.

In earlier times, when the population was small, this worked well enough when it came to burials. Although life expectancy was less than half of today's figure, the number dying each year could be accommodated in the local churchyard. In Totteridge, between the years 1569 and 1581, for example, only 14 people died. In time, however, the churchyards became full, and their boundaries were extended so that they began to encroach upon the nearby road: hence the bends in the road in places such as St Andrews in Totteridge Lane, and St James in Friern Barnet Lane.

The industrial and agricultural revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries were to change the situation dramatically. The movement of people from the country to jobs in towns, and the large increases in population generally resulted in the churchyards being unable to cope with the number of dead.

By 1850, London burial grounds were literally full to overflowing with bodies being buried one on top of another in shallow graves which, after a rainstorm, left putrifying heads and limbs sticking out of the ground. Even worse was to come in epidemics such as the cholera outbreaks of 1835 and 1848. The Victorian belief in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting ... amen' was being put under considerable strain.

The result was the passing in 1850 of the Metropolitan Interment Act, to establish burial grounds of sufficient extent for the decent interment of the bodies of all those dying in the district', and also mortuaries for the safe keeping of those awaiting burial.

Another Act of 1852 forbade new burials within eight miles of the boundary of London and the responsibility for carrying out the laws was placed in the hands of local authorities.

In our area, Finchley Common was still a large open space near to the recently opened railways. In 1853, St Pancras vestry bought the 88 acres of Horse Shoe Farm, East Finchley, for £17,500 and a further 94 acres for Islington in 1877. Their first interment took place in August 1854 and they became the first publicly owned cemetery in London.

St Marylebone bought 33 acres of farmland in today's East End Road to which they added in 1937 a crematorium designed by Sir E Cooper.

The Great Northern Cemetery was built by the Great Northern Railway Company next to their railway line in Brunswick Park in 1861. It had its own siding with special arrangements for transferring coffins from the trains from Kings Cross to the cemetery chapel.

This did not bring in the hoped-for profits and was closed, although the chapel is still in use.

With the increasing growth of an ethnic population with different burial customs, other cemeteries grew up. In 1895, a cemetery was opened at Golders Green for Sephardic Jews and members of the West London synagogue.

As cremation became more in demand, all the public cemeteries eventually opened crematoria, but the first purpose-built one near London was opened in 1902 at Golders Green as it transpired, conveniently near the Underground station.

It is a curious fact that although today we publicly discuss every subject under the sun in the most intimate detail, there seems to be a reluctance to talk about death. The mourning process no longer seems to require a last visit to see the deceased laid out in the front parlour. The discreet, well-organised and profitable services of the undertaker are called upon to ensure that the last rites are properly observed. It's a far cry from the horrors of the 19th Century churchyard.