No grave concerns

Fran Hall 1 Comment
Fran Hall

A funeral may need organising at a moment’s notice. But how much notice do you think is advisable, or reasonable, for renovating and repair a gravestone? And what should the relevant institution do to accommodate health and safety concerns, if you don’t take action fast enough?

Many churchyards monuments are, by anyone’s measure, on the unsafe side of upright. Land settles; time passes; some might say it’s the higgledy-piggledy appearance of headstone in an expanse of church ground that actually provides quintessential Britishness to our countryside.

For the most part, ‘caveat visitor’ is the adopted position of the Church. Being aware of surroundings and taking care to avoid situations of peril seems like common sense. However, we have seen at least one death reported this century in Glasgow as a consequence of young children playing, unsupervised, among unsteady headstones.

Now, in Kilsyth, notifiable family members are being served 21 days’ notice when headstones in Kilsyth Cemetery are deemed to be ‘unsafe’.

Not surprisingly, the health and safety measures being implemented in the interim are causing as much concern as the need for remedial action: plastic orange hazard barriers are always an eysore. It is debatable, as to whether or not they provide enough deterrent for the people who would be most at risk.

This is a balancing act. For the Church; the local authorities – in this case, North Lanarkshire Council – insisting on regular risk assessments; heritage and preservation societies; and the families themselves. What’s not being reported in such large typeface, are the steps then being taken to remedy these situations.

The notices make this clear: “It may be necessary to lay this stone flat or trench (set lower part of memorial place into the ground) or support it to prevent injury or damage”. Or in other words, if the family does not come forward with contractors who’ve been commissioned to take remedial action, then the headstones will be laid flat on the ground instead. Like so many others.

In actual fact, stories like these hide the facts rather well: the local authorities are taking appropriate action, which reflects what’s happened for hundreds of years. Whether anyone’s given 21 days’ notice or not, when a headstone falls over, it falls over and usually stays on the ground.


  1. Fran Hall

    Caveat visitor, eh? If only it were that simple with regard to churchyards many people would be sleeping easier.

    For the average man in the street the complexities relating to churchyard responsibilities are a closed book and if he wanders in, suffers some (reasonably) unforeseeable mishap, and seeks redress he will probably be amazed by the path he will have to take. Imagine his confusion: who owns the churchyard? Well, it’s the incumbent. So he or she has control over what goes on there? Er, no, that’s the diocesan chancellor. Pardon? The diocesan chancellor is a barrister who, in accordance with the demands of the Courts and Legal Services Act, 1990, has substantial practice experience. At this point our hapless visitor might start to feel a bit twitchy. And then there’s more…

    Is the churchyard closed? Closed, that is, in the sense of not accepting new interments. If so the responsibility for upkeep will have passed to the local authority. The imagined tort action for negligence is starting to take on alarming shades of complexity. Our visitor has been pole-axed by a toppling memorial. Who was responsible? It is too glib to say ‘the owner of the monument’, as in many cases they will be unidentifiable. Or may not even exist. In those circumstances the liability has to be assumed by the group responsible for the churchyard’s maintenance.

    Such a duty is time consuming in terms of inspection and risk assessment, and record keeping. Then there is the two-pronged attack of a sizeable increase in genealogical research bringing more visitors and the undeniable fact that we live in an increasingly litigious society when things go wrong. Orange hazard tape can start to look more attractive. Sound public liability insurance a must.

    Meanwhile our visitor has gone across the village green to recover his composure at the bar of the White Hart. Let’s hope the inn sign doesn’t fall on the bonnet of his car. Come to think of it, though, his remedies there might be simpler.

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