Friday, 26 October 2012

Grave Matters

A Jersey family say they're disgusted that they have to remove plants and personal belongings from their relatives graves. Alida Beason's brother and grandfather are buried at Les Quennevais cemetery, but she's been told by the parish only specific items are allowed there. St Brelade say it's to ensure the graveyard remains tidy and respectful, but Alida insists the move is bureaucratic. (1)

Now readers with long memories may recall that a year or two back this same Committee took the decision to refuse black headstones on the graves:

Danny Michel wants to put the stone in Les Quennevais Cemetery for his late wife Violet. But St Brelade Constable Mike Jackson said there was a clause in the rates book that said only headstones made of local material could be used. There is no black granite-type material available in Jersey so it would need to be imported. Mr Michel argues there are already 14 black headstones in the cemetery.(2)

In the case of Mr Michel, the decision was overturned:

Mr Michel's battle with the parish to have a black headstone for his wife's grave has been won. Yesterday the Constable announced that the St Brelade Cemetery Committee, who met for the first time in 5 years, would be willing to change to regulations to permit the stone to be erected. In an email to the Parish deputies and Senator Ferguson, Constable Jackson wrote: "The cemetery committee decided yesterday to agree to submitting a revised regulation to a Parish Assembly to permit black natural stone in the cemetery."(3)

That was eventually overturned after a public meeting and petition. So who is the Comite des Cimetiere des Quennevais? On the Parish Website the details are given except for the Churchwardens of St Brelade's Church, who are listed on a notice board inside the Parish Church:

Comite des Cimetiere des Quennevais
Le  Connétable - Steve Pallett
Le Recteur - Rev Mark Bond
Parish Priest of the Catholic Church - Rev Kevin Hoiles
The Methodist Minister
Procureurs du  Bien Public - Arthur Morley and Peter  Norman
A Church Warden - which must be either Brian Clarke or Eddie Cuthbert

All the Parish website has to say about the rules are as follows:

Every Parish has a cemetery and details are listed for this Parish below. Some Parishes may have burial plots that are not consecrated and there are areas reserved for Jewish burials and for Muslim burials in St Helier

A notice is posted on the cemetery, but I think it would also be helpful - in this day and age - to have the details shown online. People often walk past notice boards without really taking in what is on them, except when large warning signs are displayed.

Incidentally, the last set of online accounts for St Brelade as a PDF are for 2009! A revamp and update of the website is long overdue. The accounts, for the year ended 30 April 2009, have "Refilling of graves and general maintenance" -  £522, with the 2008 figure of 1,832, so perhaps someone is looking to reduce costs here.

There have been a number of angry comments, in particular, focusing on the fact that items on the grave were thrown away without notifying the relatives. One particular one sums this up:

This is disgusting. Who are they to say what can and can't be left on a grave? Stuart was a friend of mine and I know that visiting his grave and leaving beautiful flowers and plants is very important to Fiona and Stuart's family and friends. I am appalled that items have been removed and thrown away. How dare the Parish disrespect this.

And another shows that whatever policy there is, it is not applied consistently at all cemeteries:

Typical unfeeling nonsense from 'up top'. Jersey red tape gone mad again. My other friend died and his grave is covered in items and that's never been a problem, in fact it serves as a reminder of our good times. It's entirely personal. How dare these people even think to touch or remove them, or try to nanny us in yet another area of life.

Anything to do with death is likely to raise strong emotions, and it does raise the following questions:

Who is responsible in the day to day running of the cemetery. According to the BBC, when the Committee met to discuss the issue of black headstones, it was the first time they had met in five years. On that matter, Mike Jackson, former Constable remarked:

"Those earlier stones were granted on the basis of the previous practice but I soon after received complaints from the public about the black gravestones and thought the most practical solution and pragmatic solution was to stick rigorously to the regulations."

That gives the impression it was his decision but was it? How often do the committee meet? Do they have minutes of decisions made? Are these publically available, or kept in secret?

Or is the oversight of the cemetery delegated to the hands of one or two individuals, or even delegated further down the line to other Parish officials? Do they discuss infringements of the rules and ever look at changing them? When were the original rules drawn up, and what scope is there for interpretation? Are they being applied too rigidly.

Given the heavy handed, and somewhat tactless way the Comite des Cimetiere des Quennevais has operated recently, I think that these are questions that need answering.

However, the alternative viewpoint should also be considered. The rules were set up partly for aesthetic reasons, partly for maintenance, and partly so that the cemetery should be kept dignified. It appears that the grave of Alida Beason's relatives has virtually a miniature garden placed on it, with garden ornaments. This isn't just the placement of flowers. Where does that kind of decoration stop?

I do wonder perhaps if previous committees did not pay as much attention as they should to the rules, and gently reminding people what is not acceptable, thus making trouble for the future.

An example of something similar would be parking by St Thomas Church. For years it was ignored on Sundays and police turned a blind eye. At the special mass after the death of Pope John Paul II, suddenly they descended on the road and proceeded to book people with parking tickets while the service was just ending. That caused a lot of anger. It was another example of perhaps two wrongs - a tactless approach at almost conceivably the worst moment - and the problem caused by previous officers not being as strict as they should in the past.

So not all the fault lies with the Comite des Cimetiere. There are ground for enforcing the rules, even if this seems to have been done - as with the black gravestones - in a very heavy handed way. Perhaps the Comite des Cimetiere should take a course in etiquette and counselling.

Where people's loved ones have been buried, very intense emotions come to play, and a very gentle but firm touch is needed. Barging in, removing items, disposing of them (rather than just placing them for collection elsewhere) is not the right way to go about things. It comes across as uncaring, unfeeling and unthoughtful. A softer approach would be better, apologising for the fact that the rules don't allow this.

In the UK, there's an example of this from 2008:

A DISTRAUGHT mum fears she could be forced to move her daughter's grave because its decoration breaks cemetery regulations (5)

But while the rules don't permit this, the way of dealing with it has been very different - a lesson perhaps for St Brelade:

Staff have given her until November 15 to remove the garden or the items will be put in storage for six months and then be destroyed. A Salford council spokesman said: "Grave owners are provided with clear guidelines which operate for everyone's benefit. "Vicky purchased an ashes grave which is much smaller than a standard grave and therefore it has limited space for ornamental purposes. The extent of her garden is setting a precedent for others nearby."  Coun Keith Mann, spokesman for the environment, said: "We have every sympathy with Vicky and would like to seek a satisfactory solution." (5)

Where the black headstones were concerned, the precedent had been set, and the Comite des Cimetiere should have taken the initiative in actively regularising the situation. But where making a "grave garden" is concerned, with plants and personal belongings, this can be rectified, and possibly should.

Also most UK cemeteries have the regulations clearly online, and it is about time that St Brelade's followed suit. The Parish website needs updating to include that. Those often include reasons for the regulations, for example:

The use of breakable items (i.e. glass vases, glass containers, porcelain etc.,) is not permitted. Breakable items pose a serious hazard to cemetery visitors, our maintenance crew and their equipment. For the same reason, we ask that you not use wire, wire pins, or make holes in the soil to secure flower arrangements, or to place rods of any kind in vase or at the gravesite.

While we recognize that taste is an individual matter, we reserve the right to remove from graves sites any items which have deteriorated; which are contrary to cemetery regulations, or do not contribute to the beauty and dignity of the cemetery. We will not be held responsible for such items that may be removed. (6)

I hope that some improvement in the way the Comite des Cimetiere operates will come about, and improvements to the Parish website regarding cemetery rules. I have sympathy with them in this recent case, but not with the way it has been handled - Inspector Javert who rigidly enforced the law in "Les Miserables" would have been pleased, but then he is hardly held up as a model to emulate!

(3) BBC News Report

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