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Gorleston headstones safety fight

PUBLISHED: 15:49 12 February 2009 | UPDATED: 13:02 03 July 2010

SAFE?: One of the leaning headstones which supposedly does not need a caution notice

SAFE?: One of the leaning headstones which supposedly does not need a caution notice

Laura Bagshaw

FLOWERS lay at the foot of a headstone, while another has a scattering of mementoes signifying happier times.

As a place of quiet reflection, it is a scene anyone would expect to find in a cemetery, but one in Gorleston is being turned into a battleground over health and safety - with 238 headstones marked with large “Caution” notices.

UNSAFE?: The newer upright headstones with caution notices

FLOWERS lay at the foot of a headstone, while another has a scattering of mementoes signifying happier times.

As a place of quiet reflection, it is a scene anyone would expect to find in a cemetery, but one in Gorleston is being turned into a battleground over health and safety - with 238 headstones marked with large “Caution” notices.

Headstones which look structurally sound are being subjected to health and safety notices informing relatives the memorial is in need of essential repair, while large ageing headstones lean dangerously free without caution.

Great Yarmouth Borough Council has come under attack over its policy, said by many to be “over zealous” - a claim the council refused to answer this week. Many relatives have been left distressed and baffled by action taken against memorials of loved ones, some of which are only a few years old.

When the Mercury visited the cemetery at Gorleston crematorium on Monday , 238 headstones had caution notices placed on a wooden post behind the memorial.

On the same day the Mercury visited Kitchener Road cemetery in Yarmouth witnessing several old, large memorials leaning dangerously without repair notices, perhaps because there is little chance of relatives being alive.

Several readers have contacted the Mercury telling of their distress and confusion over the notices, which if not acted on, could result in the headstone being removed from the cemetery because of health and safety laws.

Despite contacting the borough council on Tuesday and posing a series of questions regarding the policy, the Mercury had not received a reply by the time the paper went to press yesterday .

The issue of memorial safety was highlighted in 2000 following the tragic death of a child in a Yorkshire cemetery. According to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures there have been 21 serious accidents, including three fatalities at UK burial grounds.

The HSE said it realises the “emotional impact” regarding the safety of memorial and urges burial authorities like Yarmouth Borough Council to handle the issue with the “utmost sensitivity”.

The Mercury asked for figures relating to accidents in the Yarmouth borough and what attempts it makes to contact families, but we received no reply.

Last month guidelines over managing the safety of memorials were published by the Ministry of Justice, following a year-long battle by Nottinghamshire MP John Mann, who claimed some local authorities were “over zealous” in calling for repairs.

Under the Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977 councils have a duty of care to visitors and members of the public and government advice says where memorials are found to require maintenance, “every effort should be made to contact the family to effect repairs”. However, many readers have only become aware of the repair notice when visiting the grave, with one reader saying it is a “cruel” way to treat the bereaved.

The Mercury emailed a list of questions for the borough council to answer shortly after midday on Tuesday. The result was:

There was no response.

These are the questions:

1) How are headstones selected for a test i.e. visual observation of noticeable leaning?

2) How often are these tests carried out?

3) Who carries out the tests, council employees or contractors?

4) What appropriate qualifications do the personnel have to carry out the tests?

5) What method is used to test the stability of the headstone (hand test or are tools involved?)

6) Several letter writers claim to have seen people who appear to be testing the headstones by violently shaking them. Does the council deny this claim?

7) In what condition does a headstone have to be in for it to be determined unsafe?

8) Can you explain what happens once a headstone is identified as unstable?

9) What efforts does the council make to contact families to carry out repairs, given that advice from the Ministry of Justice published recently suggests "every effort should be made to contact the family"?

10) In some cases readers have reported having a ground anchor fitted to a headstone, only for it be issued a notice claiming it was unsafe. How is this possible when ground anchors are considered to be a solution to unsteady headstones?

11) When did this become borough council policy?

12) Who made that decision and on what advice?

13) The Mercury attended the cemetery at Gorleston Crematorium yesterday, Monday, February 9, and a total of 238 headstones were subject to unsafe notices. How does the council react to the claim that it is being over zealous in the way it hands out notices?

14) Is it correct that the only person who can order repairs to be carried out on a headstone is the holder of the grave's deeds?

15) Advice from the Ministry of Justice says records should be kept of tests and results. How many headstones are currently subject to a repair notice?

16) What is the average cost of a repair?

17) How many people have been injured or killed in borough cemeteries over the last 30 years?

18) Is the council using shoddy materials, i.e. concrete, when putting up headstones?

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