ToppleTester may be used to check safety of Belfast headstones
Belfast City Council could use a machine known as a 'ToppleTester' on memorials which it believes to be unsafe in local cemeteries.
Yesterday the Belfast Telegraph revealed how families whose loved ones were buried at Roselawn Cemetery are upset after the council cordoned off more than 100 graves with blue tape and posted warnings that they were unstable.
So far 158 memorials in four cemeteries across Belfast have been deemed unsafe - nine in Balmoral Cemetery, one in Shankill Graveyard, three in Clifton Street and, as of mid-February, 145 in Roselawn.
While a series of tests are carried out in the first instance to assess the stability of a headstone, a ToppleTester could be used in cases where the safety of the memorial is disputed.
The machinery, which applies "controlled force" to the top of gravestones, could be used by the council to confirm that a memorial is unable to withstand a force of 25kg, and is therefore deemed an immediate danger.
The council has also advised that where it finds a large number of memorials to be unsafe within a section of burial ground, it will fence off the whole area "in exceptional circumstances".
Details of the criteria used to determine the safety of gravestones are contained in a policy booklet on the council's website.
For monuments up to 2.5m high, trained cemetery staff will carry out inspections including a visual check and a "hand test".
The hand test will involve the assessor "standing to one side of the memorial and applying a firm but steady pressure in different directions" in order to "check if, or to what degree, the memorial is unstable".
For memorials over 2.5m, the council staff will complete a visual check and risk assessment and - if the memorial is thought to be unsafe - will ask a qualified professional to carry out a more detailed examination.
Should the safety of a memorial be disputed, the council "may also use mechanical force measuring equipment to test the stability of memorials" in the form of the ToppleTester.
"The equipment would record whether the memorial is unable to withstand a force of 25kg and is, therefore, an immediate danger. Our staff will record the calibrated score of the mechanical tester."
If a monument is found to be unsafe, the council will send a letter to the grave owner within 10 days of the inspection to inform them of the testing and that a "temporary make-safe repair" was carried out.
It will also include details of the action needed to be taken by the grave owner to make the memorial permanently safe.
A notice will be attached to the "unsafe memorial".
If no response is received, another similar letter will be sent three months later.
Then, after a further three months, if the council still hasn't received a response from the grave owner, council staff will "take the necessary steps within the next six to 12 months to permanently make safe the memorial".
In lawn cemeteries this will involve either removing the memorial from its foundation and partially sinking it into the ground or, in "exceptional circumstances", removing the memorial. In all other cemeteries, where there is a surround on the grave, the memorial will be laid flat on that grave, or, where the memorial is over 2.5m and has been found to be structurally unsafe, it will be removed.
The council has warned that any outstanding fees owed to it for making a memorial permanently safe "must be paid before a burial can take place" in that grave.
An east Belfast man whose relatives are buried in Roselawn said that the council's actions could prove "traumatic" for grieving families.
"It's a bit crazy. What if the tests themselves damage the headstones?" he asked.