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Grave concerns: David Francis discusses the safety of memorials

20 November 2013

David Francis is a hands-on mason who has specialised for many years on the memorial side of the stone industry. He was Technical Advisor to the National Association of Memorial Masons, writing manuals and City & Guilds qualifications. If you have an issue regarding any aspect of memorial masonry that you would like help with, David is here for you. Send your queries and comments to David on [email protected].

The Ministry of Justice issued its document Managing the Safety of Burial Ground Memorials in 2009 in an effort to stem complaints from the public about memorials being laid flat and broken by burial authorities.

Local Authorities had found a new tool – the Topple Tester. It was appropriately named because that is exactly what it did, Topple.

Cemetery staff and later contractors were laying down memorials, sometimes breaking joints in the process. The first examples of a Topple Tester came from Germany and its purpose was to test ‘road furniture’ – that is, signs placed on or near pavements – not memorials.

The device had an overload buzzer set at 50kg. Applied somewhere near the top of a memorial this represents a strong force and it caused a lot of damage.

All over the country, hundreds… perhaps thousands of memorials were pushed over or broken. The company producing the testing device withdrew it and after a while reintroduced it with the buzzer level reduced to 30kg. This was raised to 35kg by the NAMM Technical Committee, members of which were testing memorials themselves.

There it stayed, until the revised

BS 8415 was published in 2012 setting the level at 25kg. Cemeteries seemed to want to continue knocking over headstones and opposed the change, in spite of the grave owners’ protests and Health & Safety Executive advice.

Most of the memorials flattered were small lawn headstones. These had generally been erected since the last war and many were unstable. But how much of a danger were they? Not much, according to the Ministry of Justice when it issued Managing the Safety of Burial Ground Memorials.

Cemeteries had spent a relatively large amount of money addressing a relatively tiny problem. The reality is that since 1978 there had been only nine deaths (eight children and one adult) and eight serious injuries (six children and two adults) reported for the whole of the British Isles.

Most of the accidents (or ‘incidents’, as they are called these days) involved old, large memorials that children had climbed and played on. These are not the memorials that cemeteries were toppling. Topple testing has concentrated on lawn memorials – and only one lawn memorial has ever been implicated in a fatality.

Of course, there should have been zero deaths or injuries and the industry has responded positively to what danger there is by introducing the British Register of Accredited Memorial Masons and later the National Association of Memorial Masons’ National Register of Qualified Memorial Fixers, both of which require fixers to be trained in erecting memorials safely.

But the legacy of the years of concern is that cemeteries that were attractive public areas for quiet contemplation, especially in urban areas, now contain lots of memorials lying on the ground or tied to stakes and likely to stay that way because the councils have no money and apparently no intention to make repairs. The total lack of an exit strategy has left thousands of bereaved families having to pay for the reinstatement of memorials.

The 2009 Ministry of Justice guidelines to memorial safety are still current and available for download as a PDF from:

David Francis is a hands on mason who ran a craft-based business in South London for many years. David moved out of London in the 1990s and since then has been concentrating on memorial masonry, being Technical Advisor and Trainer for the National Association of Memorial Masons (NAMM) for several years, writing training manuals and City & Guilds Qualifications. He has now left NAMM but would like to continue to advise and assist masons to help improve skills in the sector.


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