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Grieving son calls cemetery closures ‘unfair’ as government tells councils to reopen them

A row has broken out about whether Islington should reopen its cemeteries

20 April, 2020 — By Bronwen Weatherby

Islington and St Pancras cemetery

A GRIEVING son whose father has recently died with Covid-19 has called the decision to close Camden and Islington cemeteries “unfair”.

Anthony Howard, 47, said he turned up to the Islington and St Pancras cemetery in East Finchley over a week ago to find the gates locked.

Mr Howard said he was shocked at not being able to enter the site where his mother, who died in August, and grandmother, who died the year before, are both buried.

Since their passing, going to place flowers on their graves has become a weekly ritual and one which has now been temporarily halted amid the lockdown.

Council chiefs said the move to close the cemeteries followed an increase in visitors using them for outdoor exercise – activities which were clashing with the use of the site by mourners.

John Howard, 84, who died with Covid-19 

The site, used by families across both boroughs, is currently only being used for funerals, which only immediate families are allowed to attend.

Over the weekend, the government published further guidance on the issue and said parks must remain open and asked council’s to keep cemeteries open to allow families to grieve loved ones.

The Tribune understands Islington and Camden council are now reviewing the decision in light of the most recent government advice.

Mr Howard said: “I visit the cemetery every week so I turned up there on Saturday as usual and it was all locked up.

“I spoke to a council worker who was there and said we were given no notice but he said there was nothing he could do and said a notice had been put online. But, I’m not being funny, who would know to check the council website before visiting their family’s grave?

“It was me there, two older ladies and then another car turned up. One of the ladies was very upset because she goes up there most days.

“My son Raulph who is 12 likes coming with me every week and he was really upset.

“It’s just unfair it means a lot for people won’t be able to visit their family’s graves and with everything going on right now I think this will just worsen people’s anxiety,” he added.

Mr Howard said his dad John Howard died at the age of 84 in Highbury New Park care home in Islington with suspected coronavirus. The care home confirmed last week that two of its staff members and a resident have died from the virus and another resident is being treated in hospital.

“Because of how he died I can’t even go and view my dad’s body and now I can’t go see my mum or nan,” Mr Howard added.

Councillor for Highbury East, Caroline Russell, last week asked the council to reconsider the cemetery closure decision.

Green councillor Caroline Russell

“I understand the council have a really complicated situation to manage but we need to find ways of applying the rules with a bit of kindness because people are contacting me with really heartbreaking stories,” said Cllr Russell.

“If we’ve managed to work out how to do things like shop safely then if it is possible we should work out how to reopen the cemeteries.

“The emotional impact of dealing with death and bereavement is so acute in the context of this pandemic that really we ought to do what we can to allow people to seek solace in visiting the graves of loved ones.”

Cllr Russell added: “The council are worried about the huge number of funerals that they need to hold so they want their cemetery staff to stay well and don’t want them exposed to a lot of people and potentially the virus.

“There is also concern about the number of funerals they need to hold and if the cemeteries are open their ability to manage the limited attendance of the funerals.”

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) 2020 legislation, brought in by the government to curb the spread of Covid-19, says that crematoriums must be closed to the public during the emergency period, with the exception of carrying out funeral services.

The new law does not state that cemeteries have to be closed. Decisions to close graveyards are being made by individual local authorities or owners.

Last week, councillor Rowena Champion, said: “We know our cemeteries are extremely important places for those who have lost loved ones, and that the closures will be upsetting for family and friends who wish to visit.

“However, these are working cemeteries and we made this difficult decision in order to protect visitors and our own critical workforce during the current health emergency.

“We must be able to continue carrying out funeral and cremation services in an environment that is safe and appropriate for both mourners and our staff.

“Unfortunately, despite the Government’s calls for people to stay at home, we saw a significant increase in the number of cemetery visitors. As there is no grass space, adults and children were cycling, walking, jogging and exercising dogs in numbers on the same roads used by funeral and maintenance vehicles, increasing the risk to health and safety for all.

“A minority of visitors also showed little respect for the fact these are cemeteries, creating an environment that was not supportive to mourners. Social distancing measures – there for the safety of our workforce and those attending funerals – also became impossible to regulate.

“We will reopen our cemeteries to the public as soon as we can, but I’m sure people will understand that for now we have to prioritise our ability to safely carry out funerals, and provide appropriate services to mourners.”

Westminster City Council has chosen to keep its cemetery in East Finchley open to the public. Whereas other local authorities across London, including Greenwich, Southwark and Waltham Forest have elected to close them.

 

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