The role of gravedigger at Causeway Coast and Glens will not be done away with, Director for Environmental Services, Aidan McPeake has confirmed to councillors.
Concerns were raised a week ago after a member of the local clergy posted on a social media page that he was ‘disturbed to hear our council is planning to do away with the gravediggers.’
A statement from the council issued the following day said: “As part of the council’s process to harmonise terms and conditions of all its staff, a number of legacy job titles have been combined into a single job sescription.
“There is always going to be a role for gravediggers within the council but the new job description allows for a more flexible workforce in the future. We continue to consult with the unions in respect of all these negotiations.”
As rumours about the future of the gravediggers continued to circulate, Independent Councillor William McCandless raised the issue at the September meeting of the Environmental Services Committee.
He said: “Approximately six weeks ago Alderman Mark Fielding and I were contacted by a council operative to discuss the position of gravediggers.
“We were advised a proposal was under consideration from senior council officers that this post would be reviewed and that the role could be effectively carried out by utilising other council operatives.
“The concerns that Mark and I had were that there are other stakeholders in this process that should also be consulted, namely the clergy and funeral undertakers, neither of which I am assured would be in favour of this.
“At a time of bereavement the families of the deceased need to be treated with civility, courtesy, dignity and respect. I have always received very complimentary comments concerning our gravediggers from bereaved families in relation to this.
“I do appreciate this may be an exercise to look at rationalisation and I understand that’s what officers are tasked to do, however, we also need to appreciate this is an extremely sensitive time for any family and Mark and I want to ensure that all relevant parties are consulted with and no undue suffering or discomfort is caused.
“We also need to remember the process just doesn’t end with interment, the gravediggers offer much needed support for many months after this and I know many families have formed relationships through this and received great support from them.
“I suppose that what we are seeking assurances for is that there will be no detriment to the service we currently receive”.
Concurring with Councillor McCandless, DUP Alderman Mark Fielding described the gravediggers as ‘key essential staff in our council who have had to work through the difficult times during the pandemic’.
He added: “Families appreciate the work carried out by the gravediggers and they would see the value of the continuity of personnel at our graveyards. It is a sensitive matter and any proposal to alter their current role should take into consideration the views of all relevant stakeholders.”
Bann DEA Councillor Adrian McQuillan spoke of his own first hand experience at his uncle’s funeral in Portstewart last December.
He said: “The gravediggers saw my old aunt, who is fairly frail, get out of the car and they went straight away to their hut and got her a chair to sit on which meant a lot to the family.
“They do a marvellous job and it’s not an easy job. I also saw that day the great rapport they have with the undertakers. It’s a specialist job and it takes a special kind of person to do this job.”
Responding to the councillors’ concerns Director of Environmental Services, Adrian McPeake said: “Members will be aware we are going through a process of harmonising terms and conditions with the staff, it’s an operational matter and we are going through the process and consulting with the unions as we do so.
“In this particular case, as part of the process we are merging a number of job descriptions together to allow for better flexibility within the workforce.
“We are not and I repeat we are not doing away with the gravediggers, it is essentially a change in title.
“We have increased the element of the role in order for other staff who may be in that general grounds maintenance area, it allows flexibility to move those into the grave digging operation if and when they are required.
“The staff who are currently grave digging will continue to do so and there will be no detriment to the service.”
When questioned by Councillor McCandless, McMcPeake confirmed there are five permanent staff who will ‘remain in the roles that they currently are’ and a further four agency staff.
Pressing the Director for Environmental Services Councillor McCandless added: “So those nine members of staff, will they be utilised in other areas, yes or no?”
McMcPeake replied: “Unless they want to move, we have no requirement to move them. They are doing a great job and have always done so.”
Committee Chairman, UUP Councillor Darryl Wilson asked the Director to pass the councillors’ thanks to the gravediggers saying: “There is quite a strong consensus across this committee and the rest of the members that we do appreciate how good a job they do and we ask the Director to convey our thanks to them.”