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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 March 2006, 11:34 GMT 12:34 UK
Are gravestones dangerous?
The Magazine answers...

Church graveyard at Esher in Surrey
Careful now
Local councils have been criticised for laying down gravestones for safety reasons. So what is dangerous about them?

Grieving relatives visiting the last resting place of a loved one are increasingly finding their headstone toppled to the ground - not by vandals, but by local authorities acting out of safety concerns.

A report from the local government ombudsman of England and Wales says laying flat large numbers of gravestones is "unlikely to be appropriate" and should generally be avoided. It cited one case in which Stoke-on-Trent City Council laid down 2,000 memorials.

However local councils say unsafe gravestones represent a real risk and have resulted in a number of tragic accidents and deaths. But what is so dangerous about them?

From 1999 to 2004, there were three deaths and 18 other serious accidents from unstable memorials in cemeteries, according to a Health and Safety Commission report.

Fatal accident

A six-year-old boy from Harrogate, north Yorkshire, was crushed to death when a five-foot high headstone fell on top of him in 2000. The tragedy prompted the council to inspect 16,000 gravestones and 6,000 memorials were laid flat after being found to be unstable.

A big problem is the age of some memorials but modern headstones also represent a real risk. Reasons why they can be unsafe include their foundations not being as deep as older gravestones and subsidence from the ground around them being dug up.

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Modern memorials are supposed to have anchors of concrete or stainless steel to keep them upright, but too often a headstone is laid on a thin concrete base, which offers little protection against subsidence.

Headstones are cemented to the base, and the cement can give way in as little as a year, according to experts.

"Poor quality headstones that quickly become unstable are causing councils a real problem," says Bryony Rudkin, chair of the Local Government Association safer communities board.

"People need to make sure that they buy from reputable dealers who can ensure the safety of the memorial."

Headstone fatigue is rarely a problem for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It boasts immaculate cemeteries around the world because the memorials are planted deep into the earth, which is no longer disturbed by fresh digging.

Push over

Councils use the "topple test" to assess safety and if a gravestone moves it could be laid down. Those that manage cemeteries run the growing risk of being sued if there is an accident.

About a third of gravestones - the most common memorial since the 1950s - are estimated to have failed safety checks and about 10% of Victorian memorials.

British Gravestone Standard 8415, introduced last year, requires a stone to remain upright when a lateral force of 35kg is applied to its apex. That's equivalent to a 14-stone man trying to get up using the headstone as an aid.

The ombudsmen report recommends that gravestones should not automatically be "laid down" if they move during checks, but should undergo a risk assessment to see if there are alternatives such as temporary support, more frequent inspection or warning notices.

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