How safe are our graveyards? In the past seven years, there have been 21 serious accidents involving falling gravestones and memorials in England and Wales, according to a recent Commons Briefing.
The issue was first highlighted in 2000, when a child died in Yorkshire because of such an accident. Ministry of Justice guidance published in 2009 states that eight people in the UK have died thanks to memorials falling on them in the last 30 years. Given how many visitors there are to cemeteries, the guidance at the time stated that the risk of injury was very low.
The responsibility for the maintenance of memorials lies generally with those who put them up. However, this can become an issue when people stop visiting the graves or move away from the area.
District councils, London boroughs and parish councils have general powers of management as burial authorities. They “may enclose, lay out and embellish a cemetery as they think fit” and they must keep graveyards in good order and repair.
The burial authority can take any action necessary to prevent danger that arises from an unsafe tombstone memorial or vault. Many local authorities have started to carry out inspections of cemeteries to identify potential risks using mechanical tests.
This included the so-called “topple tester”, a hand-held instrument which is used to indicate the load or force exerted on a memorial or tomb stone by the operator.
Thanks to the inspections, some memorials were laid flat or cordoned off, and relatives were told they needed to pay to make them safe. In some cases, this has resulted in distress with relatives feeling that graves or memorials were being desecrated or that the tests themselves created the problem.
The local government ombudsman and the public services ombudsman for Wales said that it shouldn’t be necessary for burial authorities (i.e. local governments) to lay down memorials on a large scale.
The Ministry of Justice said careful planning and sensitivity was needed when carrying out memorial safety work. In a guidance document, it does not recommend mechanical testing of memorials and tomb stones. Guidance has also been issued by the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management.
For people who think their local burial authority is at fault for the way it has laid gravestones flat, then the local government ombudsman has a factsheet about safety testing in council-run cemeteries and graveyards. This sets out how to make a complaint.