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'We found a coffin floating in four feet of water at Derry cemetery... the smell would turn your stomach'

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 16/05/2015

Council worker Dermot was horrified by what he saw
Council worker Dermot was horrified by what he saw

Coffins are afloat in their graves. That is the horrific scenario described by cemetery workers in Londonderry, where flooding has been a huge problem.

On Monday Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said that he would consider new systems of regulation to minimise contamination.

He has only to look at the state of cemeteries in his home city to see the scale of the problem.

Ballyoan Cemetery has just undergone a £500,000 drainage improvement scheme to cope with near-calamitous flooding. But, still, the job is not finished.

And the huge Derry City Cemetery has similar problems, according to gravediggers, though council officials are seeking to assure the public that it remains in a good condition.

The big problem with flooding in graveyards is that it spreads dangerous contamination, much of it from the carcinogenic formaldehyde with which most bodies are embalmed. In a culture in which families like to see their dead laid out for a wake, embalming is almost universal, but the chemicals with which it is done are highly toxic.

The Environment Agency has said these dissipate harmlessly over the years, but the situation becomes potentially dangerous when the water table rises as high as it has done in cemeteries in Derry. There is also a danger of poisons being brought to the surface.

A former gravedigger at Derry City Cemetery claimed that many graves there were flooded from below.

Dermot, who worked for four years in the huge hillside graveyard, said the stench from some of the graves which have been opened for new burials was so strong that men working on them had vomited.

He contacted the Belfast Telegraph after a report on Monday that cemeteries in Northern Ireland were in danger of being contaminated by the embalming fluid that seeps from decomposing bodies.

Carcinogenic formaldehyde can leak from buried bodies
Carcinogenic formaldehyde can leak from buried bodies
Graves pumped to get rid of water

This fluid contains the highly carcinogenic formaldehyde, long used as a preservative of tissue. Some graveyards are also contaminated by arsenic, which was used in embalming in the past.

Dermot said graves that were relatively dry when they were dug had then slowly filled with water.

"We dug the graves and lowered the coffin while the relatives were there," he added. "Often, we covered the bottom of the grave to disguise the water seeping in. We then came back later to fill the grave in and we would find the coffin floating in four feet of water."

He claimed that when graves that already had a coffin in them were reopened, the stench was sometimes overpowering.

"I never smelled anything like it," Dermot added. "It would turn your stomach and give you a sore head."

The former gravedigger said he believed the stench was caused by fluids seeping in from other graves around the open one.

Dermot, an agency worker sent to the council by Grafton Recruitment, claimed he complained to the council about the contamination of the graveyard and the dangerous conditions in which he was expected to work.

In reply, he says he was told "we could throw the ropes in the grave after lowering the coffin", for they would be contaminated. But what then about my gloves and boots? Aren't they contaminated too?"

Part of his job was pumping water out of new and old graves, the latter of which would be reopened to allow for a new coffin when there was another death in a particular family.

Dermot said: "Sometimes the sides of the grave were so wet, the wall would fall away and expose three coffins stacked in the grave next to it."

But Derry and Strabane Council said it was confident flooding was no longer a problem at Ballyoan Cemetery following extensive drainage work.

In a statement to the Belfast Telegraph last night, the council added: "Where water is encountered in graves, for example an underground spring or due to adverse weather conditions, this is dealt with in the appropriate manner in adherence to Government guidelines and procedures. A comprehensive drainage system was installed at Ballyoan Cemetery to deal with ground water issues, and further improvement works are scheduled to begin within the current financial year."

A spokesperson said the cemeteries were audited by the Health and Safety Executive and that "the contamination of water is considered as part of the risk assessment process and not considered to be a significant risk".

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