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Headstone Safety Programme

Solihull Council will be undertaking safety checks on memorials in Robin Hood, Widney Manor and Woodlands cemeteries from October 2019.

The works are being carried out to ensure the cemeteries are safe places for the public to visit and will commence at Woodlands Cemetery from 1 October 2019.

There are around 20,000 headstones to be tested across the three sites, which will be done over a five year programme.

FAQs

How many headstones are there altogether in Council owned cemeteries?

In the 3 cemeteries run by the Council there are approximately 20,000 memorial headstones.

What types of memorials are there?

These vary from small tablet or book shaped memorials up to large upright headstones or figurines with or without kerb sets. In addition memorial crosses or raised (tomb) vaults can be found in some cemeteries.

How old are some of them?

The oldest memorials date from the opening of the individual cemeteries. Robin Hood Cemetery opened in 1917, Woodlands Cemetery in 1984, Widney Manor Cemetery in 1992.

Are some likely to be more dangerous than the others?

By virtue of their size and weight the larger and therefore heavier upright headstones can cause the greatest damage and injury if they fall and injure someone. That said, the smaller type of upright headstones found mostly on the more recent 'Lawn' sections are still of sufficient weight to seriously injure any person they fall on, particularly the young or elderly.

The degree of danger also relates to the method of fixing and often the length of time that has elapsed from the date the headstone was erected. Some of the large upright headstones can be seen to be leaning forwards or backwards but when tested are found to be secure and in no immediate danger to the public.

Other headstones, which appear on a visual inspection to be upright and of no danger, can be found to be loose on their base and an immediate danger to the public. It is only by establishing a headstone testing regime to examine each memorial that the degree of danger of an individual headstone can be assessed.

How will the safety test be undertaken and how do you define ‘dangerous’?

An upright headstone will be tested firstly by fingertip then palm pressure. If it is found to move on its foundations it will be held to be an immediate danger to the public.

This is meant to replicate a relative or member of the public leaning against the headstone or using it as a means to pull him or herself to his or her feet if kneeling at the graveside.

To date this force has been accepted by the courts as the appropriate maximum test pressure to be exerted on an upright headstone. If the headstone is found to move during the pressure test it will be held to bean immediate danger to the public.

How long will it take?

It is difficult at this initial stage to accurately judge how long the testing programme will take.

Once the safety team has commenced the programme and has established the percentage of headstones failing the test and how many can be staked and banded/strapped within a day, it will be possible to provide a proper estimate of the time the programme will take.

What do you do if they are dangerous?

Wherever possible, as a temporary measure, those headstones found to be unstable will be supported by a stake and banding/strapping allowing time for the grave owner or his or her descendants to arrange for the headstone to be re-fixed.

Where ground conditions make this procedure impracticable the headstone will be laid flat on the grave. A notice will be placed on the headstone providing a contact name and address requesting the grave owner to establish contact with the Council.

Who will repair the dangerous headstones and how long will this take?

The memorials that have had to be staked and banded/strapped will be left in position for a period of approximately 6 weeks. It is hoped that during this period the grave owners or his or her descendants will visit the grave and establish contact with the Council.

The owner or descendant will be advised that the Council has introduced a Memorial Masons Registration Scheme by which those masons forming part of the scheme agree to fix or repair memorials in accordance with standards established by the National Association of Memorial Masons.

The repair or re-fixing of a headstone found to be unsafe will need to be undertaken by a memorial mason currently registered with the Council under the scheme.

It is anticipated that the grave owner or his or her descendants will repair a substantial number of these headstones. In due course a decision will have to be taken by the Council as to the action to be taken regarding those memorials still requiring repair at the end of the period.

Is this the first memorial inspection programme?

No. A pilot project looking at the safety of memorial headstones in Robin Hood Cemetery began in 2006. Following the success of this project a memorial safety programme was established to look at the safety of those headstones 5 feet in height or over within other of the Council’s cemeteries.

The programme was directed at the larger memorials on the ground that they were potentially more dangerous to members of the public due to their weight and size than the smaller memorials.

Why now? Have there been accidents?

Fortunately there have been no reported incidents to the Cemeteries Department of any person having been injured by a falling memorial within one of the Council’s cemeteries.

However, the “Health and Safety Newsletter for Local Authorities” March 2004 edition published by the Health and Safety Executive states that over the last 12 years, there have been 20-30 serious accidents to members of the public caused by memorials in cemeteries toppling over.

This is often due to poor maintenance and neglect. The Health and Safety Executive require immediate steps to be taken by all cemeteries authorities to attend to the problem of memorial safety.

It is against this background and being mindful of its duty to members of the public using its cemeteries that the Council is undertaking the headstone safety programme. This inspection regime will look at the stability of headstones under 5 feet in height.

How much does it cost to check them, and who will be responsible for these costs?

The Council has a duty of care to the public entering its cemeteries as owner occupier of the land concerned. The Council will bear the cost of the inspection programme.

The responsibility for and the costs attached to the repair or re-fixing of an unstable memorial rests with the grave owner or his or her descendants.

What about people who live outside the district? How do they know that their loved ones’ headstones are being checked?

The Council is contacting the local press to inform them of the proposed inspection regime and it is hoped and anticipated that the press will run articles on the inspection programme prior to its commencement.

Notices will be placed at the entrance to all Cemeteries and also within its boundaries to inform those relatives and members of the public entering the cemetery of the proposed safety checks.

Once a headstone has been checked and if it is found to be unsafe, a notice will be placed on the memorial confirming that it has been assessed as unsafe by the Council and providing appropriate contact details.

What method are you going to use to contact families?

Current legislation allows the Council to make safe an immediately dangerous memorial without notification to the grave owner. The Council will endeavour to contact the grave owner in writing as soon as possible after a headstone has been found to be unsafe.

Regrettably it is impracticable to provide prior written notification to each of the many thousand of grave owners having a headstone on their grave that a memorial safety programme is about to commence.

It will only be known whether or not a headstone is in a dangerous condition after a safety inspection has taken place. Where a headstone is found to be unsafe the cemetery records will be checked to establish the identity and address of the original grave owner.

A letter of notification will then be sent to the owner. However, where the records confirm that the owner is deceased a letter will be sent to the next of kin of the deceased where this can be established

Many of the original grave owners are buried in the grave on which the headstone stands and often the next of kin do not contact the cemeteries department to provide a contact name and address. In these instances it is impossible to provide written notification that the headstone has been found to be unsafe.

It is hoped that the safety programme and the notices attached to the headstones that are found to be unsafe will result in the contact details for many graves being updated.

Why is the headstone safety programme starting in Woodlands Cemetery?

A risk assessment was performed on each of the Council’s cemeteries to establish the level of risk to relatives and members of the public using each cemetery.

Woodlands Cemetery was found to present the greatest risk to the public arising from the frequency of burials within the cemetery and the number of children and teenagers entering the cemetery on a regular basis.

Is it safe to visit the cemetery whilst the safety programme is in progress?

It is perfectly safe for relatives and members of the public to visit the cemetery whilst the safety programme is in progress.

How many people will be involved in undertaking the safety inspections?

One cemetery and crematorium officer from SMBC will lead the team and two members of the Council’s Grounds Maintenance Staff will undertake the testing. The team leader will test the headstone for instability. The two remaining staff will stake and band the headstone wherever possible or lay it flat on the grave where stake and banding proves impossible or impracticable.

If the headstone is dangerous who can repair it and who is responsible for the cost?

The responsibility for and the costs attached to the repair or re-fixing of an unstable memorial rests with the grave owner or his or her descendants.

The Council’s regulations require that the repair or re-fixing of the memorial be undertaken by a memorial mason currently registered with the Council under its Memorial Masons Registration Scheme.

What will happen to the headstones when the whereabouts of the grave owner or his descendants are unknown?

It is not known how many of the headstones will fail the safety testing and therefore the full extent of the problem remains to be ascertained. It is hoped that the majority of the headstones found to be dangerous will be able to be staked and banded rather than laid flat on the graves.

Once all the headstones have been tested the full visual impact of the remedial action to make safe the memorials will become apparent. The Council will then be better placed to consider what steps should be taken in respect of the affected headstones.

The Council does not possess a separate sum of money that could be used for memorial repairs and it should be remembered that the financial responsibility for a permanent repair or re-fixing of a memorial rests with the grave owner of his descendants.

Is it likely that a large number of headstones will fail the safety test?

It is not known how many of the smaller headstones on the lawn section are likely to fail the testing procedure. The headstones of 5 foot in height or greater when tested have had a failure rate of approximately 50.00%.

Will the grave or headstone on a grave adjoining a memorial found to be dangerous be damaged during the testing procedure and subsequent staking and banding etc?

No. The headstone safety programme carried out by the Council in 2006-2009 did not result in any damage to adjoining graves or memorials.

What happens if the grave owner is unhappy with the staking and banding of a dangerous headstone or its being laid flat on the grave?

The Council will provide a contact name and telephone number on the notices placed both within the cemetery and on any affected headstone. The council employee will be available to discuss the matter with the owner.

If the stability of the headstone is an issue, a meeting can be arranged between the owner and the headstone safety programme team leader for the staking and banding to be temporarily removed to demonstrate its instability.

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