COUNCIL officials have defended their action over safety checks in Huddersfield cemeteries.
They have spelled out their safety priorities after criticism from bereaved relatives who found headstones laid flat in Kirkheaton cemetery.
Kirklees officials say the work was done at the instigation of the Health and Safety Executive after a series of accidents involving headstones elsewhere in the country.
A council spokesman said: "Over the past five years there have been several accidents - three of them fatal - to members of the public in cemeteries across the country.
"The HSE wants councils to inspect memorials at least once every five years, making safe those that fail the inspection process.
"Some cemeteries that have been found with high numbers of unsafe headstones have had `improvement notices' placed on them by the executive.
"It can result in cemeteries being closed down until they have been made safe.
"This affects members of the public who wish to visit friends and relatives buried in the cemetery and those who want to hold funerals during this time.
"We appreciate that testing and making safe memorials may cause upset to bereaved families. But our priority has to be the safety of those people visiting cemeteries."
The council tests involve visual checks on headstones and then a test using equipment known as a `topple tester'.
This equipment measures the amount of pressure applied at a given point, up to 35 kilogrammes.
If the memorial starts to move before reaching this point the inspection is stopped and the reading on the topple tester is recorded and the memorial is laid down.
If the memorial withstands the 35kg of pressure the memorial is classified as safe.
There is a coding system requiring memorials to be re-tested at intervals.
Kirklees has set up a memorial safety team, comprising three employees who undertake the task.
If memorials are unsafe the stones will be laid flat.
The Kirklees spokesman added: "Responsibility in the first instance rests with the purchaser or owner of the memorial or the stonemason or the person who puts the memorial up.
"In most instances, memorials are many years old and the purchaser/owner has either moved away or has passed on and no family member is currently maintaining it.
"Stonemasons who have erected these memorials may also have moved away or retired.
"The High Court ruled that where a memorial stonemason had erected a tombstone properly it should stand for at least 30 years without repair.
"The records of many owners are extremely old and have not been updated by current relatives/family members.
"There have been notices posted in the cemetery grounds about the safety inspection process. We contacted the Wakefield Diocese for permission to carry out the testing in the consecrated areas.
"We encourage all memorial owners or visitors to the graves to update current contact details, so we may keep them informed of future memorial inspections."
A spokesman for the HSE said: "Toppling gravestones have, on rare occasions, caused injuries to the public, some of them fatal.
"This is a risk that needs to be properly managed. Councils are doing this by inspections, testing and taking sensible precautions to ensure memorials are safe.
"Councils around the country have responded to the risk in different ways while carrying out care and maintenance.
"Kirklees's decision to lay memorial stones flat meets its obligation to secure dangerous stones, but this is only one of various approaches described in our guidance."
* The phone number for people to contact Kirklees over cemetery memorials is 01484 234060, between 9am and 4pm, Monday to Friday.