Northampton Borough Council (19 018 143)

Category : Environment and regulation > Cemeteries and crematoria

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 10 Nov 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: the Council marked a grave too far over for Mr B’s granddaughter’s interment which meant further digging had to take place on the day of the funeral. That delayed the interment, caused Mr B and the parents of the child distress and led to them having to go to time and trouble to pursue a complaint. An apology, agreement to follow the procedure on child burials and payment to Mr B on behalf of the family is satisfactory remedy.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr B, complained the Council dug the wrong place for his granddaughter’s grave which delayed her burial. Mr B also complains recently he has found out the headstone for his granddaughter’s grave has been erected in the wrong place and needs moving.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. If we are satisfied with a Council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. As part of the investigation, I have:
    • considered the complaint and Mr B's comments;
    • made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided.
  2. Mr B and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
  3. .

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What I found

  1. Mr B says the contractor, acting on behalf of the Council, dug his granddaughter’s grave in the wrong place. Mr B says instead of digging the grave his brother had bought the Council’s contractors dug up the grave next to it. Mr B says this meant the family had to wait for some time on the day of the funeral while the contractors dug another grave which caused the family significant distress.
  2. The Council disputes its contractor dug up the wrong grave. Rather, the Council says the contractor had to extend the original dug grave sideways. The photographs provided by Mr B appear to show the grave next to the plot his brother bought had recently been dug, given it was not grassed. However, irrespective of whether the contractor dug the wrong plot, there is no dispute the grave as dug by the contractor was marked too far over. That is why further digging had to take place before the interment could take place.
  3. I consider part of the problem here is the contractor acted outside the normal procedure in allowing a baby to be interred at the head of an adult grave. The Council has confirmed it will no longer allow such interments to take place. I recognise the contractor did that to try and meet the family’s needs at what was a distressing time as they wanted the child buried close to other family members. However, the evidence I have seen suggests a secondary problem here was the contractor did not have the coffin size when arranging for the grave to be dug. The contractor therefore relied on previous experience when digging the grave. This meant the positioning was short. I consider if the contractor intended to act outside its policy and arrange for something it would not normally allow it should have confirmed in writing to the family what the implications of that were. It should also have checked the size of the coffin before digging the grave. Failure to do that is fault. Given the sensitivity of funerals, these are issues the Council should make every effort to get right. The result of those failures meant the family experienced more distress than they should have had on what was already a difficult day as further digging had to take place when they attended the cemetery. As remedy for the complaint I recommended the Council reiterate the apology it has already given to Mr B and the parents of the child. I also recommended the Council pay Mr B £400 to reflect the family’s distress and the time and trouble they have had to go to in complaining. The Council has agreed to my recommendations.
  4. Since making the complaint Mr B has also raised concern about the positioning of the headstone. It has now become clear the stonemason has erected the headstone in the wrong position which means it encroaches onto another plot. Consequently, it will need to be moved. I am satisfied though the stonemason is responsible for the positioning of the headstone, rather than the Council or its contractor. I have seen no evidence either were involved in agreeing the positioning of the headstone. I therefore cannot criticise the Council for that. I note though the stonemason has agreed to rectify this which will not involve an exhumation, which I hope will provide the family with some reassurance.

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Agreed action

  1. Within one month of my decision the Council will reissue its apology to Mr B and the parents of the child and pay Mr B £400 to reflect the injustice to himself and the child’s parents.
  2. The Council has altered its procedure to ensure a baby will no longer be interred in the head of adult graves. When the Council becomes part of the new unitary authority it intends to adopt a policy to ensure babies are buried either in the baby section or in a full grave.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and uphold the complaint.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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