“Even in death we are not welcome” - Gypsies battle cemetery amid claims of racism
David Loveridge, 79 from Milton, visits his wife’s grave nearly every day to read the Bible to her. He has a double plot booked and paid for in the cemetery and intends to be buried next to his wife when he dies. David Loveridge applied to Milton Parish Council for a double headstone in Milton Cemetery, south Cambridgeshire, for his wife of nearly 60 years who died of cancer in the summer of last year and who is buried in Milton Cemetery.
Yet, in a heartless decision, the council refused David Loveridge’s application, citing a rule in the appendix of its cemetery regulations that state that in double plots, double headstones and kerbs can only be built when both spouses are dead. Until he is dead Mr Loveridge can only install a single stone and headstone, say Milton Parish Council. The rule has been branded “absurd,” “unusual,” and “unique to Milton Cemetery” by funeral industry experts.
“I don’t know why Milton Parish Council has this rule,” says Donna Smith. “Aren’t we in enough pain already? It hurts me deeply is the truth, as we are not trying to do anything other than show our love and respect for our dead.”
Milton Parish Council maintain that the cemetery is “equally available to all residents of Milton parish.”
Milton Cemetery operates a ‘side-by-side’ burial policy and it offers double plots for couples so that they can be buried together. This is standard practice for ‘side by side’ cemeteries according to funeral industry experts.
However, what is not standard practice, say the experts, is the Milton Parish Council rule that disallows double stones and kerb sets until both spouses are dead.
“This rule is unusual to say the least,” said a funeral director who sits on the board of the British Association of Funeral Directors who spoke to us in their personal capacity and under conditions of anonymity to protect their business interests. “Of course, cemeteries need to have rules on the size of headstones and such like, but I’ve never come across a cemetery operating this rule. It seems heartless to the surviving spouse whose family will then have to incur extra cost to take out the single headstone and replace it with a double when the surviving spouse dies.”
A stonemason who operates across the whole of the south east, south west and Wales went further and called the rule “absurd.” Also speaking to the Travellers’ Times under conditions of anonymity, the stonemason added that the cost to the families involved is totally unnecessary and they did not understand why a cemetery would want to operate such a policy. When pressed on whether the rule was unusual, the stonemason answered that the rule was not just unusual, it was “unique” to Milton Cemetery.
“It’s not just a case of making the single headstone and kerb set bigger when the surviving spouse dies. You have to completely rip out and throw away the old single stone and kerb, and start again with new materials,” said the stonemason. “It sounds like an absurd rule and the financial cost to the surviving family, would be quite considerable,” they added.
The rule has been in existence for some time, claim Milton Parish Council. However, it has largely been ignored by the council in the past, and has only been enforced since the current Parish Council Chair, Parish Cllr Hazel Smith, took over from the previous Chair, Parish Cllr Don Wildman, in September last year. The cemetery already contains five double stones on double plots that only have one occupant – because the surviving spouse is still alive. All the double graves belong to Romany Gypsy couples. David Loveridge’s application for a double stone for his wife is the first to fall foul of the parish council’s re-statement of the rule. It was refused in a Milton Parish Council meeting held on November 1st last year.
“The cemetery policy originally had some discretion, but on advice the council removed the discretion and introduced definitive wording to avoid decisions being made at the whim of councillors or officers,” said a spokesperson for Milton Parish Council.
When the Travellers’ Times visited the cemetery just before Christmas last year, half the graves at the top of the field in the traditional burial ground where untended and dilapidated. The ground was over-grown with weeds, choked by fallen leaves and many graves had been burrowed into by animals leaving visible holes. In contrast, further down where the Romany Gypsies have been burying their loved ones, the graves were immaculate and in that section the grass was regularly cut and weeded and the leaves swept up by the Romany Gypsies themselves.
The Travellers’ Times approached Milton Parish Council to ask why they had a rule described as “absurd” by funeral industry experts and we asked them if they could ignore it in Mr Loveridges case. The Milton Parish Council reply to us was astonishing and they appeared to accuse the Romany Gypsies of being disingenuous.
“Where a second plot has been reserved at the time of the first burial the council is seeking to ensure that the second plot is actually used for a burial,” said a spokesperson for Milton Parish Council. “Cemetery land is difficult to acquire and the cemetery is really quite small for our population, so the council is keen to ensure that all plots are used,” they added. “The council is concerned that some plots have a second plot booked but appear to be using both for one burial as the headstones have no room for a second set of wording.”
Donna Smith added that the Romany Gypsies were prepared to compromise. “We all know that any wording etc can be polished out or indeed added when it’s needed, but from now on we could leave a blank space for the surviving spouse if that’s what the parish council want. But we all know that it’s clearly not the issue,” said Donna Smith. “It’s so sad to know they even hate us when we are dead. They don’t want us when we are alive and they definitely don’t want us when we die.”
Funeral industry experts also confirmed that it was common practice to ‘polish out’ an inscription on a double stone and add the name of the last spouse when they died.
The Travellers’ Times went back to the parish council with an offer from David Loveridge saying that he was prepared to sign a document in front of a solicitor promising that he would be buried in the plot next to his wife.
The final reply from Milton Parish Council was a heartless ‘no’.
“We do not require a signed undertaking from Mr Loveridge – he has already reserved the plot for himself,” said a Milton Parish Council spokesperson.
“However, for the reasons we gave before, our policy is that the second plot remains grassed until the second burial.”
The Travellers’ Times contacted Romany Gypsy community leader Sally Barter for comment. Sally Barter has heard of many Gypsies and Travellers being “indirectly” discriminated against by Cemetery providers and stressed that this can be “deeply upsetting” to the deceased’s loved ones left behind.
“To show our respect in the way that we do is very important to us,” said Sally Barter. It’s the only thing we can do to keep our loved one’s memory alive and show that we haven’t forgotten them and never will,” she added. “In order to do this properly we strongly believe the headstone should be a fitting tribute to our loved one, that’s why they are often large and ornate, graves are tended often, and they are always well looked after. This is part of our culture and what we do to show the respect we feel they deserve. Travellers find it deeply upsetting if they are unable to do this one last thing.”
David Loveridge is appealing for legal advice to challenge the decision. If you are a lawyer and think you may be able to help, please contact the Travellers’ Times at email@example.com
Mike Doherty for TT News
(Lead photograph: David Loveridge (left) and family and Donna Smith (right) (c) Mike Doherty/Travellers' Times)