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Too many graves laid flat, councils told

02 November 2006

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 hazard tape.

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 available from www.lgo.org.uk/special-reports.htm . Advice line: 0845 602 1983.

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