Cemeteries will reopen to grieving relatives after change in council's coronavirus lockdown policy
GRAVEYARDS in Bristol will finally reopen this week but only at set times, mayor Marvin Rees has announced.
The city council has been criticised for keeping cemeteries shut except for funerals and burials, despite government ministers urging local authorities to allow people to visit loved ones’ graves to lay flowers and pay their respects.
Mr Rees says they will now reopen from 4pm to 8pm on weekdays and 10am to 6pm at weekends.
He insisted the reason they had been locked was to save lives amid the coronavirus pandemic and that he was still concerned that people would use cemeteries to exercise.
Bristol’s mayor warned that if people “misused” graveyards, the council could reverse its decision.
Speaking to BBC Radio Bristol, Mr Rees said: “The whole interventions we have done have been about saving lives, so it’s a real challenge.
“But because of where we are now, we are able to look at opening cemeteries this week, but they will not be opened up full time.
“What that will allow us to do is to save the space for people going to funerals and people going to visit the graves of their loved ones.
“There will be some opening up but we do not want people to think this is a place to go and exercise because we are trying to minimise that social interaction.
“As the Prime Minister said (on Monday morning), this is a time of maximum risk and while we have done well, we cannot afford to take risks that will jeopardise lives in the future.”
Asked why the council had appeared to have ignored Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick’s call for councils to reopen cemeteries during the Government’s daily coronavirus press briefing a week last Saturday, Mr Rees said: “His emphasis was in response to a young lad who passed away with no family around.
“The emphasis was on people being able to go and recognise the death of people who have died very recently.
“It was not about opening up for general exercise.
“We have had to take measures because some of the physical space that people have wanted to have to visit their loved ones has been taken up by people using the cemeteries for exercise.
“That is what we have been trying to balance.”
Mr Rees later added: “I empathise with anyone who has been unable to visit the graves of loved ones and recognise the impact these temporary closures have had.
“The reopening of these sites is for you and not for those who see these spaces as places of exercise.
“We must do all that we can to protect each other from the threat of coronavirus.
“This includes respecting the right of those to mourn in a private and safe manner.
“We do not want to have to review this position but if we start getting reports of these sites being misused, we will have to take another look.”
No date has yet been set for the limited reopening, which applies to city council-run cemeteries and crematoriums shut earlier this month – Canford, Brislington, Greenbank, Henbury, Ridgeway Park, Shirehampton and South Bristol in Bedminster Down.
Arnos Vale is owned by the council but run by a trust, which will make its own decision.
Responding to the mayor’s announcement, Julie Cook, 56, whose husband Clifford died in October and who has been unable to visit his grave at Greenbank cemetery since the gates were padlocked, said: “This is fantastic news.
“I would like to say a big thank you to the Local Democracy Reporting Service for highlighting this story as the council definitely wouldn’t have reopened them otherwise.
“I would like to thank Bristol City Council for doing this, as it will give great comfort to so many people who can lay flowers on their loved ones’ graves in these challenging and uncertain times.”
Local Government Minister Simon Clarke wrote a letter to local authorities last Thursday saying cemeteries should be reopened.
But the city council initially pointed out that it also said it did not “compel” them to do so.
By Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporting Service