The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs B complained that the Council buried her father in the wrong plot in 2008 and failed to acknowledge the fault in 2018 when her mother died. We consider it is likely the Council, despite its intentions, dug the grave in the wrong plot and it was not noticed until 2018. The Council has agreed to apologise to Mrs B, pay her £500 and review its procedures.
- Mrs B complains that Northampton Borough Council (the Council) failed to acknowledge it buried her late father in the wrong plot in 2008, so that when her mother was buried in 2018, she could not be buried on her preferred side.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant, made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided. I have written to Mrs B and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.
What I found
- Mrs B purchased two burial plots (X and Y) in her local cemetery in 1999 with the intention of burying her parents side-by-side in the same way as they slept in bed. The intention was for her father to be buried in plot X and her mother in plot Y. In the future Mrs B and Mr B would then be buried there as well. Mrs B says the cemetery officer who showed her the plots was fully aware of this intention but there is no written record of this.
- Her father died in October 2008. The funeral directors wrote to Mrs B’s mother on 9 October 2008 confirming the details of the funeral arrangements but saying that her father would be buried in plot Y.
- Mrs B says she telephoned the cemetery office on receipt of the letter to query the plot number. She says the officer agreed the plot was wrong and corrected it to plot X. This was before the grave had been dug.
- The Council has provided an ‘application for interment’ form dated 16 October 2008. This originally stated Mrs B’s father was to be buried in Plot Y but the number has been changed to Plot X and the form signed by Mrs B. It is unclear when the number was changed. Mrs B says she has never had the original form.
- The Council’s computer records of the interment fee say that it was for Plot X and it sent an invoice to Mrs B in February 2009 for the headstone stating it was for Plot X. The headstone has the number for Plot X inscribed on it. But her father was buried in Plot Y. No family members noticed the error as the graves either side were empty grassed areas.
- Mrs B’s mother died in 2018. Just before the funeral the cemetery office noticed the error and informed Mrs B that her mother would be buried in Plot X. The family went ahead with the burial.
- Mrs B complained to the Council saying that her father had been buried in the wrong plot and the Council had covered up the fact for ten years, meaning her mother had to buried on the wrong side against both their wishes.
- The Council apologised for the error but said it was a genuine error and there had been no cover-up. But given the time that had passed it could not explain what had happened and it had no record of specific instructions as to which plot the couple should have been buried in. The Council offered to remedy the situation by reburying her parents in the correct plots but it would involve applying to the government for an exhumation licence.
- Mrs B replied saying that the family did not wish their parents to be exhumed and reburied. But she had noticed two cases from 2016 in the local press where the Council had paid significant amounts of compensation for incorrect burials. She asked the Council to pay £5000 which equated to approximately half the cost of the funerals for both parents.
- The Council escalated the complaint to stage two of its complaints procedure in September 2018. It replied to Mrs B on 23 November 2018. It apologised for the time taken but said this was due to the need to search its archives to find any relevant documentary evidence. It had found the ‘application for interment’ document referred to above which showed Mrs B’s father was due to be buried in Plot Y but this had been changed to Plot X. The Council said this showed that Mrs B was aware of the way her parents were to be laid to rest and absolved the Council of wrong-doing.
- Mrs B disputed the Council’s conclusions, saying the document proved the opposite: that her father should have been buried in Plot X but due to Council error was buried in Plot Y. The Council replied in December 2018. It said it was impossible to say when the change on the ‘application for interment’ document was made but it was possible that Mrs B signed it when it stated plot Y (ie before the number was changed). The Council had also obtained from the funeral directors the letter sent to Mrs B’s mother on 9 October 2008 saying that Mrs B’s father would be buried in Plot Y and so was aware before his burial that it was the wrong plot.
- Mrs B complained to the Ombudsman.
- In response to my enquiries, the Council says Mrs B has never mentioned the telephone call to the cemetery office during the complaint investigation and there are no records to prove this took place. It also says the cemetery office takes its instructions from the funeral directors, so any changes would have come from them not the family. It says the funeral directors records state that Mrs B’s father was buried in Plot Y and has not changed.
- Mrs B says she telephoned the cemetery office as the funeral was not far off and it was responsible for the plots.
- The Council has also provided a copy of a file note made during the complaint investigation referring to the possibility of offering to rebury her mother in the plot on the other side of plot X. However, this plot already had two occupants so if her mother was moved into it, there would be no room for a fourth occupant (Mrs B or her husband at some point in the future). But then it said there was room in the alternative plot for two sets of ashes but Mrs B had rejected this.
- Mrs B says the Council never offered to rebury her mother in an alternative plot, only to swap her mother and father over, which would need an exhumation licence.
- It was clearly important to Mrs B and her parents that they would be buried in a particular way and they purchased two burial plots in order to ensure their wishes could be realised. Mrs B also believes the cemetery officer was aware of this intention but there is no record to support this. This could indicate that Mrs B did not inform the cemetery office, but it could equally mean that the cemetery office made no record of the request, which would be fault. I cannot reach a conclusion on this point, but I am satisfied that the intention existed when Mrs B purchased the plots.
- The letter from the funeral directors to Mrs B’s mother in October 2008 said Mrs B’s father was going to be buried in the wrong plot. Mrs B says she knew this was wrong and telephoned the cemetery office to query it. She says the office agreed and changed the number. Although this is impossible to verify completely, it does explain the change to the plot number on the ‘application for interment’ form and indicates that Mrs B signed the form after it had been changed. This version of events is also supported by the reference in the subsequent documents (head stone invoice and interment invoices) to her father having been buried in Plot X.
- The Council has questioned why Mrs B would have contacted the cemetery office directly rather than the funeral directors, when she received the letter from the funeral directors specifying the wrong plot number. It says the usual procedure would be for the funeral directors to instruct the cemetery office. However, I consider it was a logical response for Mrs B, a lay person with no particular knowledge of funeral processes, to contact the cemetery office as it was responsible for the plots and digging the graves. I also do not see why the cemetery office would refuse contact from a family member in those circumstances.
- So, I am inclined to conclude on the balance of probabilities that the funeral directors originally specified the wrong plot, Mrs B alerted the Council to the error and it was changed. But then the Council dug the grave in the wrong plot and no-one noticed until Mrs B’s mother died.
- This has caused the family significant distress at a difficult time. Given the sensitivity of funerals, it is an issue the Council should make every effort to get right.
- Moving on to a remedy, I acknowledge the Council offered to physically put matters right by applying for an exhumation licence and reburial. The family understandably felt this was too distressing and declined.
- The Council has also suggested Mrs B rejected an offer of an alternative plot. Mrs B denies the Council ever offered this. I have discounted this as the alternative plot only had capacity for one more occupant and so there would be no room for Mrs B or her husband. Even though the grave could accommodate two sets of ashes this would not be adequate, as Mrs B prefers burial.
- Mrs B has requested significant compensation based on two other cases of wrongful burial. I have looked up the cases and note there were differences in the circumstances; the main one being that in both those cases the deceased were exhumed and reburied, involving a second funeral. It could also be said that the mistakes in the burial plots were also more pronounced.
- Taking this into account and the Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies, I consider that £5,000 is too much, as Mrs B would always have incurred the cost of both funerals. But I consider the Council should pay £500 to recognise the distress caused.
- In recognition of the injustice caused to Mrs B, I asked the Council to:
- within one month, apologise to Mrs B and pay her £500; and
- within three months review its procedures for burials, to ensure there is a robust double-check of the plot numbers at the point the grave is dug.
- I consider this is a reasonable and fair way of resolving the complaint and I have completed my investigation on this basis.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman