Council's gravestones policy is branded 'insensitive and inhumane' by upset relative
Belfast City Council has set aside £50,000 to assess the safety of headstones on graves - and has already deemed nearly 700 memorials across the city unsafe.
In response to a Freedom of Information request from the Belfast Telegraph, it revealed it has already spent more than £6,000 of ratepayers' cash on warning signs, tape, wooden stakes, tools and equipment at Roselawn, Balmoral, Shankill and Clifton Street cemeteries as part of its memorial safety programme.
The council says that the aim of this programme is "to ensure that our cemeteries are safe places for all those who work in and visit them".
So far, a total of 673 headstones have been found 'unsafe' at Roselawn Cemetery, as well as nine at Balmoral Cemetery, one at Shankill Graveyard and three in Clifton Street Cemetery.
To date, the council has spent £1,346 on warning signs.
The cost for the wooden stakes used is £3,175.50, the purchase of tools and equipment totals £1,378.38 and the cost for rolls of blue cordon tape used is £135.
The money to fund the memorial safety programme is drawn from the existing parks and cemeteries operational budget.
The council said: "A budget of £50,000 has been allocated to the memorial safety programme for the financial year 2017/18. Any expenditure for warning signs, rolls of blue tape and making 'temporarily' safe those headstones inspected and found to be unsafe will come out of this budget."
At Roselawn Cemetery, the plots affected are to the right of the entrance, where there is a sea of blue tape and wooden posts with triangular black and yellow warning signs that state: "This memorial has failed a regulatory test and is deemed unstable. Please do not touch."
Families whose loved ones are buried at Roselawn Cemetery have described the council's actions as "upsetting".
Journalist Stuart Bailie, whose father's memorial was deemed "unstable", said that the process had been managed with a "complete lack of sensitivity and humanity".
"This brings a lot of heartbreak - you want the council to be looking out for everybody's well-being but I don't think they have shown any regard for the well-being of families, and it seems a lot more families are about to be affected," he said.
"The irony is that we are having to pay for it, and it's so distressing.
"I finally got a letter about my father's grave on May 10, five or six weeks after I had discovered the tape and wooden stakes around the grave.
"It was very formal and in corporate language, and it didn't explain what was wrong - it just said the grave was unsafe.
"I would like them to do a budget for courtesy, to have another staff member making sure the phone is answered and letters are issued quickly.
"It doesn't seem to be a priority, there's a complete lack of sensitivity and humanity.
"If there is an unsafe grave and it could cause serious injury then that's fine, but I don't know why so much work is going on in part of Roselawn, why it has been declared a disaster zone and very little elsewhere.
"My dad's grave has been fixed, but all the graves around it have been taped off and have stakes around them and it looks like an industrial wasteland, ugly and hideous.
"It just seems to be overzealous health and safety in that part of the graveyard and I'm sure there are other priorities in Belfast."
Earlier this month, the Belfast Telegraph revealed that families seeking to make repairs to graves are having to pay a £16 access fee on top of repair charges.
The one-off sum is paid to receive a 'memorial permit' to allow work to be undertaken on an already existing headstone.
"As well as the emotional distress there is a financial pressure of having to find around £100 for repairs and access out of your budget," Mr Bailie added.
"Even if they waived that fee it would help, but it is a farce and a fiasco.
"From the get-go it has been heavy-handed and that continues."
When asked if it was prepared to waive the £16 memorial permit access fee, the council said: "We cannot comment on this at the moment - the fee is part of the policy."
It said that the inspection at section D of Roselawn, which declared 673 memorials to be unsafe, is now complete and officers are inspecting section C.
The council added: "We started the process in section D - the oldest part of the cemetery.
"It is a process; we are now in section C and will then move to section E and then section F.
"We aim to send letters out within 10 days of identifying a memorial as unsafe.
"However, we are finding it difficult to contact many grave owners because unfortunately they are now deceased and we have no updated point of contact information. The letters are then delayed going out.
"As soon as families contact us to update the point of contact information the letter is sent out."
The council apologised for any distress caused to relatives due to the project.
It said: "This was not the intention, and we apologise if this caused any distress.
"However Belfast City Council is responsible for overall safety in all our cemeteries, including risks from unstable memorials.
"Following a series of incidents throughout the UK regarding falling headstones (most notably the death of an eight-year-old boy in Scotland in 2015) we were urged by the Health and Safety Executive (along with all UK councils) to inspect memorials in our cemeteries."