The Northern Ireland Executive has agreed to reopen cemeteries during the coronavirus pandemic.
Graveyards were closed to the public in March when the lockdown measures were announced.
The legislation was drawn up by the Department of Health but the executive holds the power to change it.
First Minister Arlene Foster said it was about “balancing public health concerns with the basic human need to visit a loved one’s grave”.
The executive discussed the matter at a lengthy meeting on Friday. Cemeteries are operated by Northern Ireland’s 11 councils.
The legislation was officially changed on Friday night.
It falls to councils to reopen cemeteries and implement measures that will ensure social distancing.
Some councils have announced their plans for reopening this weekend:
- Belfast City Council says its cemeteries will reopen from Sunday, with Dundonald and Knockbreda operating normal opening hours and Roselawn and the City Cemetery opening initially on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays
- Mid-Ulster Council, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council say their cemeteries will open from Saturday morning
- Derry and Strabane District Council says its cemeteries will open from Saturday afternoon, with a one-way system and a cap on numbers at Londonderry’s City Cemetery
Speaking at the daily press conference, Mrs Foster said the chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, and chief scientific adviser, Prof Ian Young, had advised the executive that the move was “proportionate and low risk”.
Last week, a paper had been issued to executive ministers asking them to consider the matter, but the parties could not come to an agreement at that stage.
The DUP and UUP had backed the move, Alliance and Sinn Féin voiced opposition for fear it could lead to complacency, while the SDLP wanted to take further advice.
However, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, who is Sinn Féin’s vice-president, said she had since “listened carefully” to calls from the public over the course of this week for graveyards to be reopened.
“It’s a fine line always to listen to people and understand people’s concerns and genuine concerns were expressed,” she said.
“I always said we would keep these things under review and I’m glad the executive has found a way forward in relation to allowing graveyards to reopen.
“It will only be permitted where those in charge of burial grounds can ensure we have compliance with the regulations and appropriate social distancing,” she added.
“We will continue to keep it under review.”
In England, the coronavirus legislation was amended last week allow cemeteries to open again.
‘Not a broad lifting’
Mrs Foster maintained that people must still adhere to the advice around social distancing and wakes should not take place ahead of funerals.
She repeated that a maximum of 10 people should attend funerals.
“I know a lot is being asked of you as you grieve, but we would not be asking you this if it was not to help save lives,” said the DUP leader.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said while the move to reopen cemeteries was a “welcome easement”, it was not a broad lifting of the restrictions.
“People are still dying in our communities, health service staff are still putting themselves at risk to keep us safe,” said the MP.
On Thursday, the first and deputy first ministers had spoken with church leaders, who had publicly called for the restriction to be lifted.
Reacting to the executive’s decision, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Rev Dr William Henry, said it was a “sensible and compassionate response” that would bring comfort to many.
Church leaders understand that appropriate access to burial grounds must be done in line with appropriate measures to safeguard staff and those who plan to visit, he added.
The news that cemeteries have reopened has been welcomed by two people who lost loved ones to
‘A great weight lifted’ – grieving families welcome decision
Shirley McLaughlin, whose teenage son Oran is buried in Blaris Cemetery in Lisburn, said the decision to reopen cemeteries was “very welcome news”.
“I was very emotional knowing I can go back to Oran’s graveside and continue my grief journey,” she told BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme.
She said that being able to visit his grave helped “a great deal with the healing process”, and that it had been a shock when the cemeteries closed.
“It was actually a very distressing time to know that you had just been stopped,” she said.
“There was no preparation, no news that went out, the signs were just there.
“I am glad the executive has listened to people who are grieving and who are aggrieved, and will continue to do so in this pandemic.”
Brenda Doherty, whose 82-year-old mother died with Covid-19 at start of the pandemic, has not visited her grave for a month.
“I am feeling quite emotional, because we haven’t been at the cemetery in four weeks,” she said.
“There is a feeling of relief that we are going to be able to go.”
She added that she “didn’t realise how much it was impacting on me until I heard the decision”.
“There is a sense of peace when you go there. Even though you do carry them with you, you do not necessarily get that anywhere else.
“It is definitely a great weight lifted.”