Delicate balance between safety and compassion

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RARELY has an issue provoked quite so much reaction among the people of Edinburgh as that of the moving of unsafe headstones. Indeed, next to parking wardens and road tolls, it’s the number one topic currently getting the populace hot under the collar.

The arguments of just why it’s happening have been well aired. The council believes it has a duty under health and safety legislation to lay flat any it considers dangerous, while the relatives believe that the way the authority has carried out this task is close to vandalism and certainly nothing short of intrusion on their grief. Most of all, they just feel they should be informed before any action is taken.

But Edinburgh is not alone in facing this issue. Every council in Scotland is having to respond to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which has asked them to conduct safety inspections of all cemeteries within their jurisdiction, in the light of three fatal accidents of children from falling memorials.

Where the council does seem to stand almost alone, though, is in its approach. We contacted every authority in Scotland to find out what its policy is. Only seven of the 31 other councils have taken the same approach as Edinburgh.

Indeed the neighbouring authorities of Midlothian, East and West Lothian are reinforcing unsafe headstones rather than laying them flat. Other councils are writing to relatives in advance of their inspections; others are waiting until the inspection has been carried out and then asking the owners to make them safe.

So, instead of the wrath of the public some councils have been applauded for their sensitive handling of the issue, while Edinburgh City Council has been wallowing in a public relations quagmire.

The HSE, though, says this is not its fault. "In recent years there has been increasing attention on the stability of memorials and the risks that these present to all cemetery users," says a spokeswoman. "Each local authority’s own regulations state that they have a duty of care and the HSE’s role is to make sure they meet their own policy. We’ve not said ‘You’ve to do X, Y and Z’, but we’ve asked them to look at their own policies and regulations and ensure that their cemeteries and grave sites are safe."

But a spokeswoman for the council says: "Edinburgh City Council is responsible for 39 cemeteries which contain approximately 120,000 memorials. We are a large authority with a large number of memorials. Every local authority has to deal with this safety issue in the manner that best suits them."

Here’s what the other councils said:

Aberdeenshire: Reinforcing headstones

"The informal policy is that if there is a report of an unsafe stone, if the owner cannot be contacted then the council will make provision to make it safe by reinforcing the foundations," says a spokesman.

Aberdeen: Laying flat

"Those that are found to be a danger to the public have been laid flat to make them safe while enquiries are made to contact the lair owners who are responsible for maintenance of the headstones," says a spokesman. "But where owners cannot be contacted, the council will re-erect the stones."

Angus: Restabilising unsafe stones

"We carry out an ongoing audit of all our headstones. For any needing work, we try to contact the family. If we can’t contact them - which is the case with a lot of the older gravestones - we restabilise them."

Argyll & Bute: Re-erecting headstones

"We have had an ongoing project for a few years to lay down unsafe headstones," explains a spokesman. "Now we have been re-erecting them for a number of months."

Clackmannanshire: Repairing gravestones

"If we find any that are dangerous, we repair them and make them secure," says a spokeswoman. "We don’t lay them flat because by law you have to contact the owners."

Dumfries & Galloway: Contacting relatives in advance

"Our policy has been to try to identify the owner and work out how we can repair the headstone," says a spokeswoman. "At the moment we’re trying to track people down, but if we can’t track them down, they’re laid flat."

Dundee: Laying flat

"They are inspected, those which are unsafe are taken down and they will eventually be restored by the council," says a spokesman. "It’s not so much the stones that are the problem; it’s the foundations."

East Ayrshire: Shoring up

"Depending on the condition of the stones, we either shore them up or lay the stones flat," explains a spokeswoman. "If we shore them up it is then the owner’s responsibility to reinstate them safely. But if they’re cracked or badly eroded, we lay them flat."

East Dunbartonshire: Repairing headstones

"We’re doing repairs of the most urgent cases on a priority basis and we are writing to the owners," says a spokeswoman. "It is the responsibility of the owner to repair any damaged gravestones. We are not laying them flat because we feel that they then become a tripping hazard and it then makes grass-cutting and maintenance more difficult."

East Lothian: Contacting owners or resurrecting stones

"If we find stones that are potentially a safety risk but are not posing an immediate hazard, we try to contact relatives because responsibility rests with the relatives," says a spokeswoman. "If we can’t track down relatives, we will do remedial action ourselves. Mostly we try and repair it. We have been in touch with a contractor who is offering a reduced rate to stabilise stones, reinforcing them with concrete and iron bars."

East Renfrewshire: Laying flat

Dangerous stones are laid flat. Signs are erected in cemeteries to inform people in advance of inspections and notices are placed in newspapers to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Falkirk: Laying flat

"We lay them down flat if they are in any danger and do our best to try to contact owners if we’ve had to do so," says a spokesperson. "There is a review under way, but a small proportion are being laid flat."

Fife: Cordoned off and relatives contacted

"Fife Council is carrying out an audit of headstones in all of its 114 cemeteries as per the instructions of the Health and Safety Executive," says area parks coordinator Brian Shand. "Where headstones in the same area are unsafe they are fenced off. We then make every effort to trace the owners to ask them to carry out the repair work. We do have a small amount of money available to carry out repair work on headstones in certain circumstances where no owner can be traced."

Glasgow: Contacting families

"We have 300,000 headstones in our cemeteries. In the first instance, if it arises that a stone requires work, we try to contact the family and let them know that they may be asked to pay for the work," says a spokesman. "If there are minor works involved, it’s their responsibility. Failing that, the policy has not yet been finalised."

Highland: Contacting relatives and reinforcing

"An ongoing programme of health and safety risk assessments is being carried out in all our 268 cemeteries," says a spokeswoman. "Where a risk is identified, we try to contact the lair holder or existing family to discuss how they’re going to deal with it.

"If we can’t find anybody living to take responsibility, we may put up a warning sign, put in supports or barriers - it depends on each individual case. If a headstone is an extreme danger, obviously common sense would prevail, but in the majority of cases, the instruction is you have to identify the lair holder before you do anything."

Inverclyde: Laying flat

"Any stones found to be dangerous will be laid flat immediately because it is a public safety issue," says a spokesman. "Then we will write to the title-holder of the lair at the last known address informing them and asking them to contact a stonemason to ask for the stone to be re-erected."

Midlothian: Repairing

"We don’t have a policy of laying down headstones, and we’ve allocated a total of 300,000 over a three-year period for the repair of damaged memorials," says Councillor Derek Milligan. "If we find damaged headstones which have been erected within the last 25 years we write to relatives to inform them of our intention to undertake repairs, at no cost to the family concerned."

Moray: Fortifying headstones

"We are in the third year of a rolling programme to stabilise any unstable headstones in all 60 cemeteries," says Gary Morrison, support officer for the environmental protection section. "It can vary from providing new foundations, it can be redowelling, it can be putting them further into the earth. It depends on what is individually required.

North Ayrshire: Laying flat

"For every interment that is carried out, the memorials on either side of that lair are checked for stability," says John Currie of the council’s property services department. "If they’re found unsafe they’re laid flat. The lair holder is then contacted to remind them of their responsibilities."

North Lanarkshire: Propping up

"We have a cemetery memorial safety programme under way," explains a spokeswoman. "If there are any unsafe stones, if possible our workers dig a trench and set the stone into that so it is made safe and it is standing. We are currently developing a fuller policy."

Orkney: Stabilising

A spokesman says: "We’ve not had a problem with this at all, but as we are a small authority we would take any steps we could to make them safe. We’ve certainly not flattened any."

Perth & Kinross: Repairing

"If we find a headstone that is totally unsafe and an obvious safety issue then we do have to lay them flat and contact the relative if at all possible," says environmental services officer Ian Gallagher. "However, we have had to do that very few times because we have a maintenance policy of repairing them. We shore up foundations, we seal the bases and we replant grass up to the headstone."

Renfrewshire: Laying flat

"It is our policy to survey the cemeteries and headstones on an ongoing basis to ensure public safety. In some instances where we have found the headstones to pose potential danger, we have laid headstones down as carefully as we can, and made attempts to contact the relatives where possible."

Scottish Borders: Repairing

Says a spokeswoman: "We have a policy of repairing the stones where possible. We get in touch with the owners, but it’s the council who repairs them."

Shetland Islands: Contacting relative and repairing

"If we come across dangerous gravestones which are fairly recent then we contact the relatives and ask them to repair them," says burial officer Jim Grant. "If they are old gravestones, which most are, then we fix them ourselves."

South Ayrshire: Repairing

This council is still in the process of drawing up new guidelines in the light of the HSE advice, but it has a continuous programme of assessment where gravestones are repaired and restabilised.

South Lanarkshire: Contacting families

A system of monitoring the headstones is still being developed, but at the moment this council is contacting families regarding any which are thought to be dangerous and asking them to make them safe.

Stirling: Refurbishing stones

Stirling Council had already begun to implement a graveyard refurbishment programme before the guidelines were published. Families are consulted prior to inspections taking place and before any work is undertaken. Dangerous headstones will be refurbished.

West Dunbartonshire: Laying flat

A spokesman says the council has taken the same approach as Edinburgh, but has never had any complaints. "Since the guidelines came in, we lay the stones down and then we tell the families what we have done. Our policy is safety first regardless."

Western Isles: Unable to give policy

West Lothian: Repairing

A spokesman says every effort is made to contact relatives before any work is done: "For many years now the council has carried out safety checks in its cemeteries. If any gravestones are identified as dangerous by staff we take steps to make them safe. Arrangements are made for repairs either by the owners of headstones or the council. We are reviewing our procedures."