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Headstone letter to man in grave

PUBLISHED: 18:01 19 February 2009 | UPDATED: 13:05 03 July 2010

A BRADWELL woman was shocked after a letter was sent to her dead father, ordering his headstone be made safe, 25 years after his death.

And his name and date of death was clearly marked on the memorial.

A BRADWELL woman was shocked after a letter was sent to her dead father, ordering his headstone be made safe, 25 years after his death.

And his name and date of death was clearly marked on the memorial.

Valerie Rose, of Sycamore Avenue, was “disgusted” by the way the borough council handled the repair notice placed on her parents' headstone in Magdalen Cemetery.

It is the latest twist in the headstones' health and safety saga highlighted by the Mercury last week with relatives baffled by the presence of notices on gravestones which appear safe.

The headstone of Mrs Rose's parents, Elsie and William Porter, was subject to a notice last year. Mrs Rose, 66, said: “I was surprised because I'd only visited the grave a couple of weeks previously and there didn't seem to be anything wrong with it.

“Their names are written on the headstone but they sent a letter to my father at his old address on Stafford Road in Yarmouth. He has been dead for 25 years.”

Mrs Rose discovered the painful blunder after a friend told her a safety notice had been placed on her parents' grave. She called the council bereavement services office and was shocked when told the news wasn't out of the blue, a letter had been sent to her father informing him and suggesting he take action.

She said: “I was very angry. If the council had checked their records, they would have seen it is my father in the grave. I was upset.”

The council said this week that once a memorial is identified as unsafe, inspectors would search the purchase register to find the owner of the grave, who in most cases will be written to.

However, the council said quite often owners would not inform them if they have moved.

The council's head of regeneration and environment, Tim Howard, said: “Unfortunately some may have died, but we cannot assume that other relatives are not still living at the same address.”

Mrs Rose said transferring the ownership of her father's grave would have been the last thing to cross her mind around the time of his death in 1983: “Not everyone knows that the deeds have to be transferred.”

The headstone has since been removed from the cemetery and will be returned once deeds are transferred and Mrs Rose pays for the £300 repair job.

She said: “I think the worse thing is that they are writing to dead people. If they had the decency to check their register they would be able to see people were dead I would have thought they checked these records.”

The council has responded to the Mercury report last week story and challenged the reference to “large caution notices” saying the notices measured 8ins by 4ins and print was kept large so the visually impaired could read them safely.

And the council said while headstones may appear structurally sound, when tested they can be found to have nothing bonding them to the other components of the memorial.

It also confirmed large ageing headstones had been tested during the course of their inspection programme and it was not these types of memorials giving them cause for concern as they were often structurally sound.

Great Yarmouth Borough Council has this week defended its policy of placing caution notices on memorial in its cemeteries.

Last week the Mercury posed a series of questions to the council and received no response. However, the council this week said it is happy to comment on the issue and provided answers to all of our questions, listed below.

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

Cemeteries are inspected on a rotational basis. Every memorial in every cemetery managed by GYBC are inspected. Initially a visual inspection to determine condition, position, leaning, any vandalism damage is carried out, followed by a manual stability test.

2) How often are these tests carried out?

The first time an inspection was carried out in Magdalen Cemetery was on the 15 June 2004. All other cemeteries were inspected from this date, and we commenced a second inspection of Magdalen on 29 April 2008.

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

Council appointed employees

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

The employees are fully trained by the loss adjusters of Zurich Insurance, the council's insurers, prior to the commencement of their inspections. They have also received training from the Institute of Cemeteries and Crematorium Management on Memorial Management and Inspection and have attended various meetings held by the National Association of Memorial Masons for updates on policy, procedures and regulations and British Register of Approved Memorial Masons.

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

Hand test.

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?

The council strongly disputes any allegations that their staff inspect memorials other than in the prescribed way.

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

A headstone is determined to be unstable following visual and hand test. This could be caused by broken top or bottom joints and/or incorrect installation of the foundation slab.

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

A stake is positioned to the rear of the memorial. This temporary fixture prevents the memorial from being pushed/pulled/falling over and eliminates any immediate danger. A caution sign is attached to the stake advising the grave owner to contact the council's inspectors if they wish to discuss the failure. The sign also acts as a warning to visitors to the cemetery.

The Inspectors then consult the Purchase Register to obtain the name and address of the registered owner. The information is logged onto a data base held and maintained by them which provides dates of inspection, condition of memorial and the name and address of the registered owner. Even those memorials that pass the inspection have the information recorded on the database. By law we contact the registered owner (almost always by letter) at the address taken from our Purchase Register, advising them of the failure and what action the council recommends they take, together with a list of Memorial Masons authorized to erect and maintain memorials in the council's cemeteries and an application form.

The majority of owners do not tell us if they have moved, thus providing a new contact address. Unfortunately some may have died, but we cannot assume that other relatives are not still living at the same address. If no contact has been made by the Registered Owner within six months of the initial inspection and letter being sent out, a second notice (yellow) is attached below the existing one requesting visitors to this memorial to contact GYBC regarding any knowledge of living relatives.

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"?

See 8 above

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

I am not aware of any instances of this occurring. If the owners affected contact the Bereavement Services office with their specific queries we can discuss their concerns and advise.

11) When did this become borough council policy?

Memorial Inspections commenced in 2004/2005. A requirement for ground anchors for all new memorials commenced in 2005.

Having identified the potential risks and various mitigation measures the approaches we have taken were determined as the best way for the council to discharge its health and safety obligations towards users of the cemeteries. The councils health and safety policy was therefore the main policy document which drove implementation of these approaches

12) Who made that decision and on what advice?

The council developed these approaches with advice from the council's insurance company, Zurich Municipal. They were confirmed by members when budget provision was subsequently made for the appointment of the memorial inspectors

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?

The council only identifies memorials which are deemed unsafe after test and the percentage of failures is very low. From the 8,500 memorials in Magdalen Cemetery only 3.5pc have failed upon the current inspection. Once the inspectors move to other (older) cemeteries the number of failures will decrease further as the older memorials utilized much more robust erection methods

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?

Yes. It must be the registered owner who initiates any repair or alteration to a memorial and who can also give permission for future interments.

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?

257.

16) What is the average cost of a repair?

Unknown. This would depend upon a number of factors and is between the grave owners and the memorial masons. Memorial masons may provide you with details of prices, ranging from a screed of cement fixing to a ground anchoring system. You may also wish to contact NAMM for their estimate on what a reasonable price would be to fit a ground anchor Telephone: 01788542264. By Law, Masons have to provide a 6 year guarantee for materials and their workmanship.

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

None. The council introduced its policy upon the recommendation of their insurers and wishes to continue to provide an injury free safe environment for all public, contractors and employees. The rationale behind provision of this service is to prevent deaths, serious and minor injuries from unstable memorials within its cemeteries.

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

The Council has no involvement in the physical erection of headstones

For information, lawn type memorials such as those predominant in Magdalen Cemetery have only been in popular use during the last 50 years. Prior to this traditional memorials were commonly used i.e. headstone and kerbset, large sandstone and Victorian type memorials which in general remain relatively robust and safe.

Upon inspections, GYBC employees have found pencils, nails, spoons, drill bits and other items used to support the backs of some of the older lawn type memorials to their base. The National Association of Memorial Masons recognised that there was no national standard in place and therefore issued Codes of Working Practice which should be being adhered to by Masons working within the council cemeteries.

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