The Committee considered a report and presentation of the Corporate Director of Neighbourhoods and Climate Change which provided information relating to the work of Bereavement Services (for copy of report and presentation see file of minutes).
The Chair welcomed Ian Hoult, Neighbourhood Protection Manager and Graham Harrison, Bereavement Services Manager to the meeting.
The Neighbourhood Protection Manager introduced the presentation which provided an update on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, funeral poverty, burial space, the carbon agenda and future developments. Information was provided on the remit of the bereavement service which is responsible for two crematoria, Mountsett Crematorium located at Dipton and Durham Crematorium in central Durham. The service is also responsible for 46 open cemeteries, 98 closed churchyards and a woodland burial site. Following a review of the service in 2014, elements of the service transferred to the Clean and Green team and Business Support. Clean and Green undertake all grounds maintenance operations associated with the service whilst Business Support deal with aspects such as funeral arrangements, headstone installation and customer services.
In line with the Council’s statutory duty to make arrangements for the funerals of people who die or are found dead and no funeral arrangements have been made, the service also carries out public health funerals. To address the growing issue of funeral poverty, the crematoria have introduced reduced cost timeslots and there is also an option for direct cremation.
Members heard that the service implemented a national standard for all new headstones which provides greater foundations and improved stability and the measure is supported by regular testing. The Neighbourhood Protection Manager recalled a question raised by a member of the public at a scrutiny meeting in 2020 regarding the use of weedkiller around headstones and whether this was a cause of headstone instability. Following the meeting, the Council reviewed its approach, resulting in areas within cemeteries being identified for strimming as an alternative to spraying. The Neighbourhood Protection Manager pointed out that strimming has also led to complaints regarding detritus being strewn across memorials and headstones. It was clarified that headstones may be affected by a range of factors, including ground maintenance regimes, animals and tree roots, however, the future will see the potential to install more concrete rafts which provide a stable base for headstones. In the future, the service will also continue to adjust its approach to maintenance within cemeteries to reflect climate and ecological commitments.
The Committee noted that woodland burials have become a popular alternative to traditional burials and an area of land close to Durham crematorium is a dedicated woodland burial site. Several existing cemeteries are now full and for most sites there are alternatives within 4 miles. The Council continues to investigate areas which could be extended to create new burial grounds, however, this is subject to Environment Agency approval in respect of groundwater pollution.
The Neighbourhood Protection Manager explained the crematoria have joint committee arrangements managed through Durham County Council, Central Durham being a partnership with Spennymoor Town Council and Mountsett a partnership with Gateshead Borough Council. The crematoria provide a variety of services including webcasting, memorialisation and recycling of metals. Both sites have solar panels, EV charging points and heat generated from the cremation process is used to heat the buildings. The Committee received information on the recycling of metals resulting from cremation which is carried out with the consent of bereaved families. The proceeds from this had resulted in almost £300,000 being raised for local death related charities.
The Neighbourhood Protection Manager paid tribute to staff and highlighted that their ability to carry out their duties with sensitivity at all times is a skill which should not be underestimated.
The Committee noted an important future development as the service is part of a national working party to consider resomation, a water-based, carbon-friendly alternative to burial and cremation.
The Committee noted that key challenges for the future include the increase in the amount of people suffering from funeral poverty and the demand for burial space.
In response to a question from Councillor Quinn on the number of woodland burial sites in the county, the Neighbourhood Protection Manager clarified there is one such site at present, however other sites may be suitable and he pointed out that woodland burial sites also require maintenance. Councillor Quinn requested further information on the resomation process and the Neighbourhood Protection Manager explained the body is placed in a water chamber with a water and alkali-based solution and this process changes the body to ash. Councillor Quinn also asked whether the reuse of burial plots had been considered. The Neighbourhood Protection Manager replied that legislation applies only to London burial authorities at the present time. The current approach Durham is taking to address the increasing demand for burial space includes investigating whether it is possible to extend sites, however, strict Environment Agency regulations regarding the suitability of land must be met.
Councillor Adam pointed out that some town and parish councils also provide cemeteries and he asked whether their provision could be utilised. The Neighbourhood Protection Manager replied that customer choice is a factor and he added that some town and parish councils provide only accommodate those living within their boundary.
Councillor Adam stated that it was his understanding that some parish councils will provide a service to those who live outside the parish boundary, for a slightly higher fee and he gave the view that collaboration could lead to solutions in the future.
Referring to resomation, Councillor Adam asked what environmental concerns related to the process. The Neighbourhood Protection Manager explained that the fluid is subject to a water treatment process and energy is required in order to heat the water used. Resomation is a comparatively slow process, therefore fewer resomations can be carried out on a daily basis. He clarified that resomation is not available at this point, however it is an important development for the Council to consider in future.
Councillor Adam commented on the maintenance of memorials and headstones recalling previous public concern regarding the erosion of soil. He suggested the solution may be to cease strimming and using herbicides and revert to families tending gravesides. He asked whether this had been considered. The Neighbourhood Protection Manager responded that it would prove difficult as individuals have different views on how gravesides should be maintained. However, the issue of stability of memorials and headstones was being addressed through the implementation of national standards and the installation of rafts to improve stability.
Councillor Charlton asked whether liaison is carried out with funeral directors regarding the various rules which apply as to how cemeteries are cared for so that families are made aware of the arrangements prior to making a decision to purchase a burial plot. The Neighbourhood Protection Manager clarified that information is provided to families when they visit to select a plot and information is also provided in the deeds, when a plot is purchased. Councillor Charlton referred to a specific memorial garden and explained that when permission was granted for the garden, there was a condition that there was to be no marking of plots and she expressed disappointment this was not being adhered to and she questioned whether such conditions are communicated effectively. The Neighbourhood Protection Manager assured Members that information is disseminated, however, it was possible that the information may be overlooked given the difficult circumstances families are in at that time. He added that he would consider the comments to identify how communication may be improved.
In response to a question from Councillor Potts as to whether there are more woodland burial sites in the pipeline, the Neighborhood Protection Manager replied that there are plans to liaise with the Corporate Property and Land service in this regard. Councillor Potts then asked whether the fluid from the resomation process could be used on land in woodland burial sites and the Neighbourhood Protection Manager responded that he would investigate the question, for a response to be provided to the Committee.
Councillor Elmer referred to carbon emissions resulting from cremations and he asked whether the service had considered requesting that families make a carbon offset payment, the proceeds from which could be used to plant trees.
The Neighbourhood Protection Manager responded that he was not aware that this suggestion had ever been considered.
In response to a question from Councillor Elmer regarding cemeteries in the county which are being weakened by coal mining subsidence, the Neighbourhood Protection Manager stated that he was aware of the issue at Brandon cemetery and he was not aware of any other cemeteries in the county where this was an issue.
Councillor Quinn asked how cost effective resomation will be and the Neighbourhood Protection Manager explained that the cost of a resomator is approximately the same as the cost of a cremator and resomator running costs are lower. However, fewer resomations can be completed on a daily basis as the resomation process takes more time than cremation. In terms of a future business case, other factors needed to be considered including location and the implications of attracting more business into crematoria which are already dealing with a busy workload. Councillor Quinn spoke of advances in technology and he asked if there were any other alternative methods to cremation and resomation on the horizon. The Neighbourhood Protection Manager highlighted the development of electric cremation and he added that technology will undoubtedly continue to develop in this field.
Councillor Adam observed that last year’s figures relating to burial and cremation fees were included in the report and he asked for up-to-date information. The Neighbourhood Protection Manager pointed out that cremation fees are set by the joint committees and burial fees are set through the Council’s budget setting process. Fees consider market pressures and how best to support residents and this had led to initiatives such as discounted rates and direct cremation. The Neighbourhood Protection Manager agreed to provide up-to-date figures.
Councillor Charlton asked whether the crematoria have the facilities to offer both cremations and resomations and the Neighbourhood Protection Manager confirmed that both locations have sufficient space, however, the challenges of increasing workloads must be considered.
In response to a question from Councillor Elmer on how the Council approaches the funeral rites of minority religions, officers informed the Committee that the site at South Road, Durham caters for Islamic burials and at present Durham has no dedicated facility for the Sikh faith.
Councillor Coult referred to the rafts at Moorside cemetery and asked whether rafts are installed in other cemeteries. The Bereavement Services Manager explained that rafts are installed in sections and Sacriston and Stanley cemeteries have sections with rafts.
That the report be received.