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Community / Reassurances given over burial ground concerns

The graveyard at the Knab in Lerwick. Photo: Shetland News

REASSURANCES have been provided by the council over allegations of maintenance staff accidentally damaging vases in graveyards, as well concerns over the use of strimmers near gravestones.

An update on the current grounds maintenance arrangements at burial grounds was given to members of Shetland Islands Council’s environment and transport committee on Tuesday.

Environment and estate operations manager Carl Symons said a decision made last year to carry out more frequent grass cuts has resulted in better and less obtrusive mulching.

But he also touched on accusations that burial grounds staff have damaged vases placed on graves on several occasions.

A report presented to councillors said that staff make “every effort to carefully work around such items”, although the rules state that pieces are left outside at owners’ risk.

It added, though, that there are instances of glass globes and porcelain vases bursting when they collect water and freeze in cold weather.

Plastic items also can become brittle and crack over time, the report said.

Management rules state that only stainless steel and stone vases should be placed on graves.

Symons told the meeting that if other items are placed on graves of loved ones then this will be tolerated, although broken pieces of porcelain or glass can present a hazard when grass cutting.

He also said that concerns have been raised over the use of strimmers around headstones, and this leading to “structural failure”.

But he said there are a “number of factors at play, and it often depends on soil type”. Natural processes can lead to ground level lowering over time, Symons said, giving the perception that it is grass maintenance that has caused the erosion.

Remedial “topping up” is carried out on an as needed basis to maintain the integrity of grave stones, and over the last year there has been a transition from petrol to electric battery strimmers, which tend to be less “aggressive”.

At Tuesday’s meeting Lerwick councillor Stephen Leask asked how difficult the last year has been to review for grass cutting as well as burial grounds.

Amenity area grass cutting did not begin last year until late June/early July last year due to Covid restrictions, while burial grounds commenced in April.

“I think in answer to that, genuinely it’s been a horrible year,” Symons replied, “because the people who are cutting the grass in the burial grounds and also the people that are doing the burials and also the people that operate the temporary mortuary facility that was put in place.

“We were trying to juggle and spin many plates at the same time, while hoping the predictions didn’t come to pass, while trying to keep staff fit and able to be able to deal with any emergencies, and while doing our normal day jobs.

“So it has not been easy, and I would pay tribute to all of the staff in infrastructure for their efforts in keeping things going on the ground despite the circumstances.”