Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Concerns remain over potential resale of old graves

Despite Canon Francis Brown’s recent rejection of claims that the church is reclaiming graves in St. Mary’s graveyard in Newry for re-sale, speculation remains rife that older plots in the city cemetery are being earmarked to be sold as sites for new burials.

A recent clean-up project in the graveyard spearheaded by Independent Newry City Councillor Kevin McAteer brought together volunteers to carry out an extensive tidy-up of some of the oldest graves in St. Mary’s.  The Newry Community Graveyards Project was created in response to concerns over the decline of very old graves in the city cemetery that had no living relatives left to maintain them.  There is no-one currently employed by the Parish to maintain the graves.

Speaking to The Examiner ahead of a further volunteer clean-up operation scheduled for this weekend, Councillor McAteer said he hoped that the Parish did not plan to sell off unclaimed graves and said that even those left unclaimed for many decades still needed to be afforded the dignity and respect of being maintained and not sold off.

His sentiments were echoed by local community activist John McCabe who was one of the volunteers who took part in the clean-up project. He raised further concerns over the possible resale of graves, having come across dozens of taped off former graves and plots while helping to tidy up neglected graves in the old part of the cemetery.

Mr McCabe said there are two different concerns about the situation, the first being the upkeep of the old cemetery in general and the second being the fear that pegged and taped off former graves and plots which have been neglected, abandoned and in cases unidentified are apparently being sold off for others to use for future new family burials.

The Catholic church has denied this, with Parish administrator Canon Brown insisting that a complete survey of the graveyard is being carried out in order to update their records.  He said the Church was conscious of being respectful to the families of the deceased and have followed legal advice. The Canon highlighted the fact that local media had carried notices for four consecutive weeks and the Parish bulletin for three months advising people with an unmarked grave in St. Mary’s to inform the Parochial House. He said the survey was being carried out to identify free plots of land where there is no record of anyone being buried so the Parish can then cater for people who have had their names on a waiting list for burial plots in St. Mary’s for many years.

Mr McCabe however remains unconvinced of the Church’s intentions and told The Examiner that the sight of the taped off graves “saddened and disheartened” him.

“These being the resting places of once living people who were promised sacred rites that they could rest in peace – now, in the interest of ‘progression’ we see their resting places being disturbed,” he said.

“Does it matter if there are no individual markers now on these graves?  A solitary cross on each unmarked grave would suffice like that for the paupers or is the financial gain for these plots of land a better proposition?”

Mr McCabe revealed he had stumbled upon an old rustic cross which had been dislodged from its original plot and dumped.  He said this concerned him as it meant that the plot belonging to this “poor individual” was now unmarked and could become a “business commodity” to be sold off.

Having carried out extensive research on the cross inscribed in loving memory of a 12 year old boy named John O’Rourke who had died on 1st August 1912, John discovered that his demise was as a result of a tragic accident which occurred on Home Avenue in Newry, where the young boy had fallen and fractured his skull, dying almost immediately from his injuries. A review of the inquest into young John O’Rourke’s death revealed further details about his life living in Newry with his grandfather while his parents lived in Scotland, and the circumstances of his death, with witnesses stating how they had tried to help the young boy as he lay dying.

According to Mr McCabe, discovering the tragic story behind the discarded cross “humanised” the issue of neglected and abandoned graves and brought home for him the importance of preserving graves, either marked or unmarked.  He said there were “so many stories to be told” if old graves “marked or unmarked are left preserved and NOT tampered with.”

“All must be maintained and NOT be prepared for others to pay their way to be buried into others promised sacred final resting places!”

The community worker is certainly not alone in this opinion, with many people taking to social media in recent weeks to express their concerns and to criticise the Church for its actions.  One parishioner, responding to John’s revelations on Facebook said people did not “realise the scale of the grave-robbing at St.Mary’s.”

“There’s upwards of 100 graves being resold, which will generate 100 grand.  This will be continuous revenue going into the church’s coffers, as each and every grave will eventually fall into disrepair so long as there is no one paid to upkeep the cemetery.”