By Phylis Stephen
Mark Porteous Funeral Directors are demanding a plan of action regarding grave toppling in Edinburgh’s graveyards. Despite acknowledging that this is a health and safety issue the funeral directors have accused this as being “disrespectful” adding: “more kids have fallen off a school roof than been crushed by a headstone”.
The City of Edinburgh Council manages and maintains almost 40 cemeteries in the city. They also maintain a number of historic graveyards such as Greyfriars Kirkyard.
According to the council, since a fatal accident here in Edinburgh in 1982, and following a fatal accident in Yorkshire in 2000 involving a six year old child, a policy has been developed by the Council to have any “unsafe” headstones laid flat in case they fall on a child playing there…..who presumably should not be there in the first place! Have you ever allowed your six year old child ever go into a cemetery far less use it as an unsupervised play area? So for the last seven years headstones in the cemeteries have been flattened where they are thought to be the least bit wobbly or dangerous. City workmen have undergone training to assist them make their minds up what is and is not safe.
According to one of the city’s undertakers this practice is another case of health and safety gone mad. “It is” he said, (and for obvious reasons he did not want to be named) “vandalism under an official hat. The desecration of the city’s graveyards is unforgivable as most of these stones would never have moved from their position.”
He went on to tell me that one of the worst is the Morningside Cemetery in Balcarres Street where beautiful old stones have been torn down where considered unsafe. When I spoke to the Chair of Morningside Community Council, Jean Thompson, she told me that the Community Council have discussed this issue more than once and that they support the City Council’s policy. She said “It is making the place safe for the public while minimising the upset to relatives.”
Dr Derek Browning, minister at Morningside Parish Church, told me that he finds it sad that cemeteries are not as well tended as they used to be when people would regularly visit family graves every few weeks. But, he thinks this may be one result of social change and mentioned that the more mobile communities of modern times mean that some families have become very far-flung. As well as this many cemeteries are almost full and the number of burials is declining in favour of cremation. “ I suppose in these cash-strapped times it is difficult to justify the cost.” he said to me.
The legal position is that in the council-owned graveyards the council maintain the paths and grassy areas but the owners of the grave or lair are responsible for maintaining the headstone. Then after the last person who is to be buried in the grave is dead and gone the right vests in his or her executor and they are responsible for the maintenance of the grave after that.
Councillor Robert Aldridge, Environment Leader, said: “The Council ensures that it maintains its cemeteries and graveyards in a safe and respectful manner, which is why, like the majority of our fellow local authorities, we have a clear policy regarding the safety of headstones. In order to safeguard against potential accidents or even fatalities from unstable headstones, we believe laying dangerous stones flat with the inscription facing up is the safest and most dignified course of action available. Whilst we understand the effect this has on the appearance of individual graves, we must put the safety of the public first.”
A council spokesman went on to tell me that “Where a headstone is found to be dangerously unstable it is laid flat by using an approved lowering gantry, designed to manoeuvre memorials safely without causing unnecessary damage to the memorial. Since our inspection programme commenced in December 2002, approximately 9,000 headstones have been laid flat in Edinburgh.”
At Saughton Cemetery where I first noticed this problem I spoke to a couple tending to their family grave. This grave has a lovely shiny black headstone and they were the first to tell me that they knew of their obligation to maintain the headstone in a safe condition. But they went on to say that they thought it a great pity that the cemetery generally looked as though it was in a state of disrepair owing to the number of headstones which have been pushed over.
I spoke to a spokeswoman for Historic Scotland who said: “The management of graveyards is mainly a matter for the local authority, although gravestones themselves are often owned by individual families.
“If a listed gravestone is involved it is for the local authority to approach Historic Scotland with a Listed Building Consent application. With listed stones we would prefer to see their repair and resetting.”
Whilst any deaths which may have resulted from accidents caused in this way are very sad is it not a little extreme that the council have now flattened almost 10,000 headstones in the city?
Were they all going to fall on top of somebody?