Safety testing in cemeteries and graveyards controlled by councils

This fact sheet is aimed primarily at people who believe that there has been some fault in the way the council has gone about laying memorials flat and may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman.

When I made my yearly visit to my mother's grave I was shocked to find the memorial laid flat and a notice telling me to contact the council. Can the Ombudsman help me?

In some cases, yes. Councils have a duty, both to members of the public and their own workers, to make sure that cemeteries and graveyards for which they are responsible are safe. Memorial can become unstable since erection and cause accidents to people. To try to prevent this, most councils now test the safety of memorials at regular intervals. Unsafe memorials may have warning notices attached to them, be cordoned, supported by stakes, or laid flat on the ground.

Councils have to carry out safety testing but they must have a policy setting out how they will do this. But, if you believe that the council did something wrong in the way it carried out its testing, and can also show that it caused you problems, you can complain to us.

How do I complain? 

You should normally complain to the council first. Councils often have more than one stage in their complaints procedure and you will usually have to complete all stages before we will look at your complaint.

Then, if you are unhappy with the outcome, or the council is taking too long to look into the matter – we think 12 weeks is reasonable – you can complain to us.

You should normally make your complaint to us within 12 months of realising that the council has done something wrong.

For more information on how to complain, visit our contact us page or complete an online complaint form.

If you can consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for? 

Some faults we might find are that the council:

  • did not have a testing policy
  • did not give adequate publicity to its intention to carry out safety checks before starting
  • did not try to notify the grave owner that the memorial had failed the test
  • carried out the testing with staff or contractors who were untrained
  • failed to assess the risk posed by the memorial properly, and
  • laid memorials flat without considering other methods of making a memorial safe.

What happens if the Ombudsman finds that the council was at fault? 

It depends on the fault and what the consequences are for you. We can recommend that the council takes action to put the matter right. Depending on what the complaint is about, we may ask the council to:

  • Make a payment in some cases; the amount we suggest will depend on how much you have been affected by what the council has done wrong. This might cover the cost of re erecting a memorial that should not have been laid down, or to cover a family’s distress on discovering a memorial laid flat or supported by a stake when there had been poor advance publicity about testing taking place. We may also ask for a payment to acknowledge your time, trouble or expense in pursuing your complaint if there was avoidable delay by the council when dealing with it.
  • Improve procedures so that the same problems do not occur again. For example, we may ask the council to publicise more widely details of testing before it starts, or to introduce a system for notifying owners of memorials that have failed the safety test.
  • Introduce a system for training staff who carry out testing. 

Examples of some complaints we have considered

Miss Y complained the council did not act in accordance with government guidance when laying down her grandparents’ memorial and a number of other memorials in a cemetery. We found the council to be at fault as it did not follow its own procedures or government guidelines when inspecting the memorials. The council also had no records to show how and why it laid down the memorial. The council agreed to apologise to Miss Y and reinstate her grandparents’ memorial. It also agreed to contact others affected by the faulty inspections to discuss as suitable resolution. 
Mr B and five others complained that they had not been informed before the council laid flat memorials to their relatives. We found that the council was not at fault in giving general publicity to its intention to test, rather than trying to notify owners individually. Advance publicity was given in a newsletter delivered to each household, in the press, and by notices in the cemeteries.

Other sources of information

The Ministry of Justice issued guidance, in January 2009, entitled Managing the Safety of Burial Ground Memorials, see www.gov.uk/government/publications/burial-grounds-guidance-on-managing-unstable-gravestones

Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please contact us.

We provide a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result we aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

July 2020