Gravestones and Burials

Unstable and dangerous monuments.

The PCC is responsible for the overall maintenance and repair of a churchyard, which includes the safety of its monuments and headstones. It is true that the next of kin or heirs at law of the deceased own the monument or memorial stone and are the persons primarily responsible for its repair and safety. So in the first instance the safety of a stone is the responsibility of the family, but if the heirs at law are not known or decline to keep a memorial safe, the PCC will effectively be the only party responsible for public safety. 

This is the same even where the churchyard is closed for burials by Order in Council and the responsibility for routine maintenance has been transferred to the local authority under the appropriate legislation.

Care should be taken that the local authority does not take matters in to its own hands when undertaking maintenance of a closed churchyard by laying down headstones on the ground without any consultation. A faculty will be required if any party, including the PCC, wishes to carry out such work.

Identifying an unstable or dangerous monument.

The church insurer’s advisers should be able to assist with the details for undertaking basic risk assessments. It may be appropriate for a hand (or “topple”) test, carried out safely by volunteers and under supervision, to determine whether any monument which otherwise seems to be secure, is subject to movement.

Where movement is detected, sufficient pressure may be applied with care to determine whether there is significant risk of causing serious injury. The hand test should only be used as part of the overall risk assessment. 

There may be specific circumstances where a test to a sizeable or obviously dangerous monument with pressure testing devices may be appropriate in order to obtain information essential to the assessment of the memorial in that case. In this instance, the guidance of a specialist monumental mason should be sought before taking any action.

You have identified an unstable or dangerous monument (headstone).

Where a monument is found to be unstable and poses a direct and immediate public danger, then the churchwardens or PCC are encouraged to rope off the area and display clearly visible notices informing the public that the roped off area of the churchyard is not available for public access at this time and that they should/must not cross the barrier.

Once appropriate measures have been taken to secure the area, the heir at law of the deceased, where known, must be informed. This will form a part of a faculty application which is required before any work is carried out to a headstone or other memorial. PCCs are encouraged to contact the Church Buildings team for advice in such matters at an early stage. 

Headstones which require immediate or urgent intervention and need to be lowered in an emergency should never be moved away from the grave to which they relate. In this instance, seek the advice of church’s insurer and notify the Church Buildings team for further advice and about emergency faculty permission.

The PCC should take steps to find out how a particular stone can be made safe, or seek proper advice. Best practice is that monuments should be re-erected vertically and secured to by a specialist monumental mason compliant with a standard of workmanship to meet the requirements of British Standard (BS) 8415. The PCC will be required (and should be prepared) to record the inscriptions of any monuments proposed to be laid flat, as the stone and its inscription may deteriorate faster if the stone is laid flat on the ground.

Public notices and contacting the heir at law.

The Chancellor of the Diocese of Leeds has advised that reasonable effort to contact heirs at law or relatives of the deceased should be made by putting notices on graves, publically visible church notice boards and in local press (website or print). But where the deceased has died in the last 50 years, PCCs are expected to write to the last known addresses and make a particular effort to locate the heirs at law.

Good Practice and the care of monuments (headstones).

The PCC should always ensure that it is fully insured before undertaking any testing or inspection of potentially unstable or dangerous churchyard monuments.

Regular and routine attention to monuments should avoid dangerous problems arising unexpectedly.

Guidance on the care everyday churchyard monuments and churchyard management plans can be accessed here:

Caring for Gods Acre

Church Care

Historic England

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