Grave concerns for ‘safe cemetery’ campaign after letter sent to the deceased

According to an article by Belfast Media Group Belfast City Council has caused considerable distress to a bereaved family by sending a letter to a deceased resident asking her to carry out repairs to her own grave stone.

The women passed away almost 10 years ago and is buried next to her husband. The family member that received the letter said: “It was a bit of shock, to be honest. Everyone can make mistakes, but this is one that could so easily have been avoided with a bit of sensitivity and professionalism. City Hall keeps records of deaths, so obviously nobody bothered to do any cross-checking. And it would be a very simple matter for the workers inspecting the headstones to take a note of who’s in the plot as an extra precaution. Many if not most of the graves in the cemetery are family plots and somebody should have taken that into consideration before this process started. It’s just a lack of thought and care, in my opinion, and it was totally avoidable.”

“I would ask them now just to do what they can to make sure their process is tightened up to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen to any more families. I’m sure it’s happened before and it will certainly happen again unless the system is improved.”

Like many local authorities in Britain, Belfast City Council is in the midst of a memorial inspection programme launched in 2016 after an eight-year-old boy was killed by a falling headstone in Scotland the previous year.

In the letter to the bereaved woman, the City Hall Director of City Service said while the Council does “not wish to cause any further upset” to bereaved families, it must “make sure” its cemeteries are “safe places” for workers and visitors.

In a statement to the Andersonstown News, a Belfast City Council spokeswoman said: “We are sincerely sorry for the upset and hurt caused to the family. As part of our memorial safety inspection started in 2016, we have written to around 3,600 deed holders. Some of the information we hold may not have been updated by relatives or family members, hence this administrative error has occurred. We recognise this will have been very upsetting for those receiving the letter and apologise for the error.”

But the family member rejected any suggestion that families should be required to update information about their loved ones for the Council. All deaths in the city are legally required to be registered with Belfast City Council, which also holds burial records for the City Cemetery.

“The death was registered with City Hall,” she said. “They have the information at their fingertips and that is enough. The simple fact of the matter is that they made no effort to access that information and are just sending out letters willy-nilly to deed-holders, most of whom are going to be older people. It’s very unfair of the Council to try and turn this around like that. This is too sensitive a matter to be treated in such a slipshod manner.”

Asked if updating the Council’s records after the statutory death registration process was the responsibility of the deceased’s family, a Council spokeswoman said: “While we make every effort to ensure the information we have is accurate and up to date, which can be challenging given the passage of time, on this occasion details were missed. We will review the process of writing to deed holders to ensure further checks are in place to try to prevent any similar errors or upset in the future.”

This upsetting example shows that despite modern technology silos in organisations still exist meaning that errors such as these do occur. As a result despite having the information in its records local councils should routinely screen their databases against deceased suppression solutions such as Mortascreen which identifies the records of people that have passed away. Not only is deceased suppression best practice and will help reduce the distress caused by such communications, but under GDPR councils have the responsibility to ensure that their citizen data is up to date. With many councils carrying out ‘safe cemetery’ reviews this is particularly important.

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