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Agenda item

Bereavement Services

Minutes:

The Committee considered the report of the Corporate Director of Neighbourhoods and Climate Change that provided members with an overview of the Bereavement Services.

 

The Neighbourhood Protection Manager and Bereavement Services Manager were in attendance to present the report and deliver a presentation that looked at Bereavement Services; Cemeteries and Woodland Burial Sites; Crematoria; Recycling of Materials; Memorialisation; Public Health Funerals; Achievement so Far; Impact of COVID-19 and Key Issues (for copy of report and presentation, see file of minutes).

 

The Neighbourhood Protection Manager highlighted that the service has many facets and works with other services such as Clean and Green and Administration. The cemeteries in County Durham were treated with respect and they had more Green Flag awards than any other local authority. Members were advised that there were approximately 15-20% of burials compared to 85-90% cremations and that there were other places where burials are carried out such as woodland sites; parish and faith cemeteries. Space for burials is limited and extensions to Durham County Council cemeteries had been made at Pelton and Sacriston.

 

The Neighbourhood Protection Manager highlighted the rising costs associated with funerals and the prospect of funeral poverty for some families. This had been the subject of an inquiry by the Competition and Markets Authority who had recently announced in their provisional findings there was a lack of transparency in parts of the market.

 

The authority has a statutory duty to make arrangements for funerals for those who die without anyone else to make the arrangements for them.

 

The impact of COVID 19 on the service has been significant, over April and May there was an increase of approximately 500 deaths on the usual figures, there has been a necessity to keep up to date with changing regulations; staff from other service areas were redeployed to assist and at the peak crematoria had extended days and were open seven days a week. Crematoria are cleaned between services and signs highlighting Space – Face – Sanitise are displayed prominently around the crematoria.

 

In addition to the key issue of COVID, other key issues include the need for sensitivity when dealing with the bereaved and some of the regulations date back to ecclesiastical law.

 

The Chair noted that funeral poverty was a real concern moving forward with COVID-19 and unemployment, so the situation was only going to get worse and asked if the industry were looking into making funerals more affordable or at least supportive to people in difficult circumstances.

 

The Officer responded that they tried where possible to advise people where help was available including the social fund. The Competition and Markets Authority report highlights that people were very traditional at these times and were likely to use a funeral director they have used previously. People are very vulnerable at this time and want to do the best they can for their deceased relative. The authority was currently investigating transparent costings and the possibility of setting up a service that provides funeral directing.

 

Mr Stoddart a Member of the Public was in attendance at the meeting and had submitted in advance of the meeting a question, a copy of which had been circulated to Members prior to the meeting, together with a copy of the response from the service.

 

Mr Stoddart was invited to provide members with the background to his question. Mr Stoddart provided the following background and question to the committee.

 

My name is Dennis Stoddart and my family has memorials in five County Durham cemeteries. The background to my short presentation and question results from the Council undertaking maintenance in cemeteries and as part of that process uses the herbicide Round Up, which contains glysophate to kill the grass around the base of memorials to aid grass cutting. This, in my view is leading to accelerated soil erosion and the destabilisation of head stones.

 

Members in wards with cemeteries where my family have graves and the Chair of this committee have been provided with a photographic survey to show how this is already causing soil erosion around our family’s recently erected and refurbished memorials. The council carries out a testing regime on memorials to ensure they do not become destabilised to an extent that would present a danger to public and staff. A method was found to ensure memorials were safe by testing and action, but what has never been carried out is a study to determine why memorials are becoming destabilised and the role of herbicides may be having in them becoming destabilised and accelerating soil erosion, resulting in the destruction of memorial foundations.

 

Memorials given enough time may well become unstable as a result of the natural forces of wind, snow and ice. However, what I believe can be shown to be happening here is that the use of herbicides leaves bare ground devoid of grass on their root systems binding the soil together. That there is an acceleration of that process as a result soil erosion is being accelerated and contributing to the failure of foundations. It is desirable, if not essential that the use of herbicides be ended.

 

Memorials would not become destabilised in a relatively short period of time. There would seem to be a divergence of opinion between the liability for the memorial and the desire of the council between undertaking maintenance in an effective cost manner. As we have been advised that the Council is going to further review this matter then it needs to do so based on a professional report into what is causing memorial foundations to destabilise. This request will ensure that a professional assessment is carried out and an appropriate report is produced that is made available to the Council to make informed decisions. Turning back to the question before the committee if approved and such would provide information that would allow a focus on prevention of memorial destabilisation. This would in turn reduce the efforts and costs of the Council in carrying out its duty of care to ensure the safety of memorials, reduce danger occurring from destabilised memorials as well as reducing financial burdens for the Council and the holders of the Exclusive Right of Burial who are the owners of the memorial. In effect a less destructive maintenance regime without the use of herbicides may well be the outcome.

 

The question I have put is:

 

I ask the Council to commission a technical report to be made available to members of the Council and the general public into why memorials in cemeteries where the Council undertakes maintenance are failing the testing regime as a result of foundation instability. To determine what is causing the ground below sub-base to erode away when adjacent ground remains intact. That the report determines if the use of herbicides in practice causes damage or is responsible in a way leading to accelerated soil erosion and that they also be required to make recommendations to prevent such failures in the future in a cost-effective manner. The report to be undertaken by a reputable professionally qualified structural engineer, civil engineer and environmental specialist engineer in the impacts and causes of soil erosion.

 

The Chair thanked Mr Stoddart for his question and background information and asked The Neighbourhood Protection Manager to respond.

 

The Officer responded that the Council knew and fully appreciated that the Council’s cemeteries and the closed churchyards were places of great significance for the loved ones of anyone buried there. The Council did try their best to maintain these spaces and were proud that the Council had more cemeteries with ‘Green Flag’ status than any other local authority in the country. The Council were aware that in some cemeteries over the last year there had been some instances where the application of herbicide had been too wide. This was not appropriate for a cemetery, falls short of the Council’s standards and this had been addressed.

 

He was pleased to confirm that the vast majority of memorials in the Council’s cemeteries passed the stability tests, and where they do not, it was often associated with poorly constructed and laid foundations. Notwithstanding this the Council did acknowledge Mr Stoddart’s concerns, the National Association of Monumental Masons (NAMM) advice and the general reservations that some people had about herbicide/glyphosate use.

 

He was pleased to confirm that the Council had recently commenced work in reviewing the position regarding herbicides in cemeteries albeit there were no easy alternatives – to cease altogether would have grass growing high around headstones where mowers could not reach; to strim would not only be more labour intensive, but risked damage and may result in the cut grass being spread across the memorial.

 

The Council’s work to date had involved benchmarking with other Councils (the vast majority of which use herbicide), and the Council had also been seeking advice from wider industry bodies. The Council were undertaking some further investigations to consider the options for the future. This would include alternatives, impacts and the costs associated with all these options.

 

If need arises as part of the above review, then the Council would consider employing a specialist to look at causes of headstone instability, however the numbers of headstones are so large, and the construction and ground conditions so varied, it may be difficult to draw any general conclusions from such work. The Council’s key focus at present would be recognising the widespread interest in more environmentally friendly alternatives and would therefore seek to explore options around alternatives, which would be a necessary if current practices were to changed.

 

The Council would of course be keeping the Environment and Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee informed of this progress.

 

Mr Stoddart stated that the issue was that the Council has implications of maintenance and the way that is undertaken but also owners bear the cost where destabilisation occurs, and work is necessary. Mr Stoddart then reiterated his belief that the use of herbicides is leading to an accelerated rate soil erosion and the need for a technical survey with professional involvement to present findings to the Council at the start of a review not at the end.

 

Councillor Coult indicated that she welcomed the review as she was aware of the damage that herbicides could cause to the ground and this herbicide, had a high acidic pH, so does have an impact on the ground surface. Cemeteries were sensitive areas and acknowledged the work of the service in keeping these areas well maintained but suggested that alternative methods should be considered to reduce the use of herbicides.

 

Councillor Brown indicated that she was a holder of a pesticide certificate which allowed her to store and use pesticides and indicated that pH 4.5 given that neutral was pH 7 this product has a fairly high pH. The impact of acid rain on the cathedral could be seen rotting away the sandstone and we have limestone gravestones that would rot away by a high pH as would the cement that forms the foundation of the gravestones. She suggested that this needed to be looked at on a wider scale and gave an example that dog urine had been accused of rotting lampposts that had a pH of 6.5. She welcomed the review but asked that the review be extended to the use of herbicides around street furniture.

 

Councillor Sexton also welcomed the review and agreed with Councillor Brown that the general use of herbicides was damaging and could be a false economy. In the past everything was strimmed but he appreciated the damage this could cause, and the council needed to look at other methods.

 

Councillor Avery welcomed the report and commented that some cemeteries were under the control of Town and Parish Councils and asked if the findings could be shared with Town and Parish Councils so that they could introduce the council’s recommendations.

 

The Officer responded that the Council were committed to doing a review and had already started some investigations and were already following up with some of the national bodies. The council wanted to ensure that they had something that was sustainable and they already had a range of different cemeteries with some left to wildflowers but he did not want to pre-empt what would result from the review and the options that may result to address Mr Stoddart’s concerns. If required, they would employ a technical expert and they would update, share with parish councils the outcomes of the review.

 

In response to the question from Councillor Brown in terms of the wider use of the herbicide, the government had licenced the use of glysophate through to the end of 2022 period and this was already on the agenda and widely reviewed and it would be up to the government if they wished to licence it any further.

 

The Chair referred to the quality of the foundations of the gravestones and asked if the council had any evidence of this.

 

The Officer responded that when the new unitary authority was established a review was undertaken and some foundations were fixed with wooden dowels and in some cases, foundations were sitting on top of the surface. Part of the reason for the council adopting the British Register of Accredited Monumental Masons (BRAMM) or NAMM standards was that they wanted memorial masons to fix to a particular standard and the latest review of that was in 2018 and that would continue to be updated and reviewed.

 

The Chair thanked Mr Stoddart for his question and clearly the Council was going to take his question seriously and realised that this was a sensitive and costly issue. The Officers had an ongoing review that would continue until such time as sufficient evidence to suggest that they possibly need to take it to the next stage which may be a formal technical report. This committee would monitor the report and if felt it necessary that a more technical report was required, they would recommend this to officers.

 

Resolved: That the contents of the report be noted.

Supporting documents:

 

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