A family in Littlehampton has been left reeling after council officers took down a loved one’s gravestone without telling them.
Susan Spencer, 65, of Church Street, said she was “appalled” when she discovered what had happened to her mother’s burial plot, at the Littlehampton Cemetery, on Friday (October 19) morning.
Fearing the grave had been vandalised, the family contacted Arun District Council, and was told that the headstone was a danger to the public and had been laid down on top of the plot for safety reasons.
The council says the headstone was not knocked down, but was laid down “with the utmost respect”, on top of the grave.
Mrs Spencer, whose mother Agnes died almost 60 years ago, had tended the plot since childhood. She said she was almost in tears when she found the headstone lying on the ground.
“I just couldn’t believe it when I saw the grave,” she said.
“It was absolutely heartbreaking to think that someone could have done such a thing to my mother’s headstone.
“I almost cried when I saw what her burial plot looked like. It was extremely upsetting.”
Mrs Spencer’s husband John, 64, contacted Arun District Council immediately to report the suspected vandalism.
However, it was revealed that it wasn’t vandals who had taken down the headstone but health and safety officers from the authority – almost two weeks prior to the family discovering it.
Mr Spencer said: “What Arun District Council has done is disgraceful.
“It’s caused so much pain for our entire family – my wife in particular.
“When we discovered the headstone it seemed to have been thrown to the side. We automatically thought that some yobs had knocked it down.
“It hadn’t been laid down with any sort of reverence.
“So when we found out it was the council who had taken it down, we were incensed.”
He added: “It wouldn’t have been so bad if they had told us a day or two after it had happened. But to leave it more than two weeks, and to let us stumble upon it, was unforgivable.”
A spokeswoman for Arun said that the council had a duty of care to protect people who used the district’s churchyards and cemeteries and officers regularly undertook health and safety checks of all the sites.
She said: “We understand this must have been distressing for Mr and Mrs Spencer. However, we have a duty of care to the public. We regularly have to test whether memorials and headstones in our churchyards and cemeteries are safe as they do so often become loose and unstable over time due to many factors, including the weather.
“In this instance, this memorial was dangerously unstable and, as a result, was laid down. It was not knocked down. Our officers treat all property with the utmost respect.”
She added: “According to our records, the owner of the memorial stone was Mrs Spencer’s late father and ownership had not been transferred at the time of his death.
“So, while a letter explaining the council’s course of action was late being sent on this occasion, it would have gone to the registered owner rather than that of Mr and Mrs Spencer.”