CEMETERIES where councils have flattened thousands of post-war gravestones
for supposed reasons of health and safety look to mourners as if they have been
vandalised and desecrated, the local-government ombudsmen say.
The public are also "outraged", they report, by the practice of shrouding
unstable memorials with bright-yellow warning covers and brightly coloured
The ombudsmen condemn over-reaction by councils to reported accidents in
cemeteries. Stoke-on-Trent City Council laid down 2000 memorials, before
finding that only 60 had posed a very high risk.
Of the 600,000 who die each year in England and Wales, a little more than
one third are buried: half in new graves, the rest in reopened graves. Since
the 1950s, lawn memorials have become the most common type, but they are more
likely to be unstable.
Fewer than one tenth of safety-tested Victorian memorials, but a third or
more of lawn memorials, have failed the standard test, which applies pressure
on the stone to see whether it will shift.
In 2004, the Health and Safety Executive reported three deaths and 18
serious accidents in cemeteries in the preceding five years. But the ombudsmen
say that putting memorials on their sides could create new dangers, and, just
because a memorial moves when it is tested, this does not mean that it has to
be laid down: councils should institute risk assessment.
Stoke-on-Trent now has a new four-category inspection system: white for very
dangerous memorials that need to be cordoned off immediately; red for high
risk, where a red warning notice is attached to the grave, and its owner is
given four weeks to take action; yellow, meaning the stone needs fixing within
six months; and green, meaning no action is needed.
The report finds no fault with the Council’s new inspection system.
"Our main message is simple. In our view it should not be necessary for
burial authorities to lay down grave memorials on any large scale," the three
English and one Welsh ombudsmen say. Moreover, to avoid causing widespread
offence, councils should take more expert advice, improve staff training, and
contact the bereaved before laying down monuments.
Communities have been "shocked and aggrieved" by actions that have left an
appearance "as though vandalism on a large scale has desecrated their
cemeteries". There is "continuing public concern on this very sensitive issue".
Special Report: Memorial safety in local authority cemeteries is
. Advice line: 0845 602 1983.