People asked to check safety of their gravestones

Following a pilot inspection of gravestones at Putney Vale cemetry people who own headstones at cemeteries in Putney & the rest of Wandsworth are being asked to help the council by checking that they are safe and unlikely to topple over.

The message to grave owners comes as the council prepares to carry out a safety audit of every headstone and monument in its seven burial grounds and five cemeteries. The pilot inspection of 329 headstones at the oldest part of Putney Vale cemetery, where some burials date back to 1851, revealed that nearly five per cent were in immediate danger of collapse, while another 15 per cent needed prompt attention to prevent them becoming a hazard.

Headstones that were found to be an immediate hazard were cordoned off and covered with a high-visibility bag warning visitors to keep away, until they were made safe. This involved laying the headstone flat on top of the grave using specially designed lifting equipment, which is in line with guidelines issued by the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration, the industry's professional body.

The audit - which will involve checking the condition of around 100,000 headstones - is being carried out on the instructions of the Health and Safety Executive. The HSE has informed all councils in England and Wales that audits must be carried out to ensure the safety of people working in cemeteries as well as visitors. Since 1995 at least four people in the UK have been killed by falling gravestones, including three children under the age of nine.

Many gravestones and monuments date back decades and have suffered from decay over the years as well as vandalism. Some modern headstones may be dangerous because of poor workmanship and defective materials.

People who find that their headstones are unsafe should arrange to have immediate repair work carried out by a monumental mason or stonemason.

In the forthcoming audit, if gravestones are found to represent an immediate danger and need urgent attention to make them safe, they will be carefully laid flat using this special equipment. The council will then attempt to trace the registered owners to inform them that the headstone needs to be re-erected.

The owners of headstones which need repairs to prevent them becoming dangerous in the future will also be contacted and asked to carry out the necessary works to make them safe.

Peter Brennan director of Leisure & Amenity for Wandsworth Council said: "This is an emotive issue and one that we fully understand will be upsetting for some people. However it is an issue that councils simply cannot ignore. We have a legal responsibility to ensure that memorials and headstones in our cemeteries and burial grounds do not pose a risk to the public.

"There have been some tragic deaths elsewhere in the UK in recent years where headstones have toppled over and killed people. Sadly most of the victims in these dreadful incidents have been young children playing innocent games like hide and seek.

"We are now urging people who own gravestones in our cemeteries to make sure they are safe and if there is any doubt call in an expert. Staff who work at our burial grounds and cemeteries will be on hand to offer professional advice.

"I would also urge parents who live near burial grounds to warn their children not to approach any headstone that has been cordoned off and marked with a warning bag. If they have been marked in this way, then they will be dangerous and should not be touched."

5th June 2003

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter

Comment on this story on the