Manchester’s Southern Cemetery is the largest municipal cemetery in the UK, and the 2nd largest in Europe. Established in 1879, the cemetery is split into two sections, and has over 250,000 individual plots. To meet public requirements, the cemetery is open from dawn to dusk every day of the year.
Southern Cemetery has an established staff and an active friends group, that I am privileged to Chair. For the last two years the cemetery has been awarded the prestigious Green Flag in recognition of the improvements made within the facility, and the enthusiasm and commitment of all those involved in making the cemetery the best it can be. This includes the police, who play an active part in supporting the cemetery staff and friends group, and are proactive in tackling the tiny minority, and it is a tiny minority, who cause heartache and distress through their thoughtless and selfish actions.
It is a sad fact of life that there have been grave robbers for as long as there have been graves and memorials. Even the pharaoh’s of ancient Egypt couldn’t stop them, with their seemingly impregnable pyramids, curses and death traps. That does not mean that we should give in to this most pernicious of human activities, but it does mean we have to be smarter, and more determined.
Southern Cemetery staff and management, friends group members and local police meet regularly to address issues of crime and anti-social behavior that may impact on the smooth running of the cemetery and its environs.
When it was thought that dense undergrowth on the Nell Lane side of the cemetery might encourage anti-social elements and littering, the staff and friends got together to remove it. Local police, councillors, even local MP John Leech joined in to cut back the undergrowth and remove skiploads of litter.
When there was a spate of thefts from cars parked on Nell Lane, signs were erected to warn people not to leave valuables on show, and when there was a complaint about people using the cemetery to exercise their dogs the Council Dog Warden service was briefed to identify and tackle the offenders.
When a local resident, who had been the victim of theft from a loved ones grave, asked if CCTV had been considered, the Friends group asked the police for a report on the viability of CCTV as a crime reduction measure. The report from the police made sobering reading.
The sheer size of the Southern Cemetery site would require dozens of cameras to be effective. Indeed, the large number of trees on the older section of the cemetery would render CCTV largely ineffective.
Because of the number of cameras required, a sizeable staff would be necessary to monitor them, at a huge cost. There was also the problem of telling the difference between someone tidying up a grave and someone stealing items from it. How would that be done? Many thefts from graves are not discovered for days, or weeks afterwards. The cost in time and money of employing someone to view possibly weeks of CCTV footage in the hope of seeing someone steal an item from a grave could never be justified.
For CCTV cameras to be useful, the cemetery would have to be floodlit, as CCTV is ineffective during the hours of darkness. This would be unacceptable to local residents and the Council, and prohibitively expensive.
Finally, there are a significant number of people who would object to being filmed while grieving in the cemetery, and their right to privacy has to be respected.
For these reasons it was decided that CCTV was not a viable option to reduce thefts from graves in Southern Cemetery.
This does not mean that we have given up. Other strategies are being pursued. For instance, the Friends group is working with local schools to involve children in activities connected to the cemetery. For the last two years, local primary school children have taken part in Remembrance Day ceremonies at the War Memorial. It is hoped that teaching children to respect the cemetery will engender a reverence among young people for its purpose and facilities.
Thought has also been given to improving the security of the cemetery fencing. One proposal is to plant rose bushes at vulnerable sections of the perimeter to deter people from unauthorized entry, particularly at night. Rose bushes would also benefit the local wildlife and bees, and be much more attractive (and less expensive) than unsightly metal railings.
The Council has promised support from its Response Service, although it has to be noted that they are under-staffed and badly stretched, and the cemetery staff are particularly vigilant and willing to challenge unacceptable behavior.
However, in the final analysis, the best deterrent to anti-social behavior is the vigilance of the public. A willingness by people to report bad behavior to the police or cemetery authorities, and to get involved in the Friends of Southern Cemetery group will help to tackle the problem of those who steal or cause damage.
Meetings of the Friends of Southern Cemetery are advertised in lecterns at the main entrance to each section of the cemetery. Anyone can attend, and have their say. It costs nothing but a little of your time. Your views and suggestions are welcome, and may contribute to making Southern Cemetery a safe and attractive facility we can all be proud of.
Matt Gallagher is the current Chair of Friends of Southern Cemetery.
He served as a frontline GMP Police Officer for over thirty years and was the Liberal Democrat candidate for Greater Manchester’s Police and Crime Commissioner.