THE two gravediggers sacked by Northumberland County Council insist they are 100 per cent convinced that no bodies are buried in the wrong graves.
Chris Gregory and Malcolm Purvis, who were dismissed a year ago for gross misconduct, claim they are the victims of a “witch-hunt” by the council as it has tried to explain the catalogue of administrative errors at Berwick and Tweedmouth cemeteries.
The council announced two weeks ago that an investigation into historical inaccuracies at the cemeteries had uncovered evidence of burials in the wrong plots, memorials on the wrong graves, deeds issued incorrectly and unregistered burials.
But Mr Gregory and Mr Purvis, who had each clocked up 22 years service, insist management have simply been unable to understand the complex system of book-keeping they used.
“I could prove that there are no bodies buried in the wrong graves if I was given the chance, but I can’t see the council asking for help now from the gravediggers it sacked,” said Chris, 52, from Scremerston.
The pair had been responsible for booking funerals and allocating graves, as well as gravedigging when they worked for Berwick Borough Council pre-2009.
“We did everything apart from the deeds and the bills but we were never trained on how to do the administration,” revealed Chris.
“When I started I was handed a records book and taught myself. Our predecessors used a very complex system which we copied and I don’t think the county council understand it even to this day.
“If they think they have a body buried in the wrong grave, I’m pretty sure I could put them on the right track in just a few minutes.
“As for some of the other issues, we had nothing to do with the deeds. If there were unregistered burials we would not be here talking about it – we’d be facing a long prison sentence.”
The pair had previously been arrested and suspended from work in October 2010 amid allegations they assaulted their manager and pushed her into an open grave, although no further action was taken by the CPS due to lack of evidence.
“We thought we’d be going back to work then but that didn’t happen for another eight months and then when we did go back there seemed to be a witch-hunt against us,” said Mr Gregory.
The council then launched disciplinary proceedings against the pair relating to the cemetery record irregularities and they were sacked last November. They lost an internal appeal in February and stepped away from an industrial tribunal last month following the death of Mr Purvis’ father.
“We’d both had serious stress-related health issues over the period,” said Mr Gregory. “Malcolm lost his father and I didn’t want the whole thing affecting my new business so we walked away from it.
“We had no idea all of this was going to blow up until the press got in touch with us. The council has made us the scapegoat for it which is totally unfair.”
The council maintains, however, that it has serious concerns about the poor state of the records at the two cemeteries. As a result, a small number of graves were identified as being ‘at risk’.
While most of the errors can be corrected simply by clarifying details in the burial records, the council has admitted that more detailed investigation is required in a very small number of cases which could include partial excavation.
The authority has stressed it will work very closely with any families involved and take action only with their approval. Steps have already been taken to contact any families who may have been affected.
It has also explained why it has taken three-and-a-half years for the problems to be made public.
A council spokesman said: “Once problems were suspected new management arrangements were implemented immediately. Unfortunately gathering evidence and taking two members of staff through disciplinary procedures, and subsequent dismissal, took some time.
“We were unable to carry out any work to rectify problems during this time - but as soon as those processes were completed we moved quickly to determine a plan of action to ensure that all issues are satisfactorily rectified.
“This has been a complicated investigation into a very sensitive matter. The council has carried out a lot of work to make sure that we are very clear about what the issues are at the cemetery, and what the implications are for families who have relatives buried there. This has included an audit by an external expert in cemetery management, and this work has just been completed.
“We have also been carried out our own detailed investigations in relation to disciplinary proceedings against two members of staff. These staff have subsequently been dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct. This process has just been completed and we would have been unable to release information which could have prejudiced a fair process.”