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Mercury tests out headstone test

PUBLISHED: 15:15 19 March 2009 | UPDATED: 13:23 03 July 2010

Stone strength: Mercury reporter Laura Bagshaw tests a headstone in Magdalen Cemetery.

Stone strength: Mercury reporter Laura Bagshaw tests a headstone in Magdalen Cemetery.

A HEADSTONE memorial in Magdalen Cemetery stands perfectly upright - it appears structurally sound.

However, after a visual inspection of the bottom joint, the section between the base of the headstone and the concrete base, inspector Barry Bigg suspects it is not as safe as it appears.

Inspection: A stone's angle is measured.

A HEADSTONE memorial in Magdalen Cemetery stands perfectly upright - it appears structurally sound.

However, after a visual inspection of the bottom joint, the section between the base of the headstone and the concrete base, inspector Barry Bigg suspects it is not as safe as it appears.

A modest hand test reveals a failure of the bottom joint; cement linking the headstone and concrete base is cracked and when slight force is applied the memorial is easily moved.

Details of the inspection including size, memorial type ie black marble, angle of leaning and results, are logged and the information later updated to a database.

A 5ft wooden stake is immediately placed behind the headstone, driven into the ground with either a rubber mallet or post driver, removing immediate risk to the public. A notice is placed on the stake advising relatives theheadstone is unsafe and needs repairing, giving contact details for staff at the cemetery.

Under the watchful eye of Mr Bigg, it is the turn of the Mercury to test memorials and while most headstones pass, a couple, one of which was leaning, fail, and with a gentle push the heavy headstones are moved with ease.

The most common fault is the failure of the bottom joint and Mr Bigg explained water ingress was one possible cause.

“When water gets between the base of the memorial and the concrete, it can freeze, expand and crack the concrete.”

Headstones are rated in three categories - those in need of immediate action; those which have minor problems and will be inspected in a year's time; and structurally sound headstones which will not need to be inspected for four to five years.

Once identified as unsafe, the council attempts to contact relatives by writing to the registered owner of the plot. If the owner is deceased, repair work then falls to the responsibility of relatives who must pay £33 to transfer the deeds of the plot to make necessary repairs. An additional charge may also be required if relatives cannot produce letters of administration or a copy of a will.

Bereavement services manager Linda Bigg said the council tried to act in the fairest possible way to relatives, adding it was only the registered owner of a grave who could order repairs to be carried out.

And relatives often don't take the news too well, according to Mrs Bigg.

She said: “On several occasions relatives have removed the stake from the ground, taken it into the crematorium office and hurled it at staff.”

Often repairs for memorials can be up to £300 and many relatives take no action taken. If no contact is made within six months of the first white notice being placed on the stake, a yellow notice urges any visitor to the grave to contact the council.

Simon Mutten, head of environmental services at the borough council, stressed the policy was not a money-spinner for the authority.

“This is something which is costing the council money, we are not making money. Where there are hazards to the public there is a health and safety risk.”

Defending the borough council's policy to write to dead people over their memorials, Mr Mutten said it was difficult to get hold of the right people. “We try to encourage people to tell us when they change address, but quite often they don't.”

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