Cemeteries have been closed since last month's coronavirus lockdown
Politicians in Derry are divided over cemetery closures after members of the public called for them to be reopened.
Burial grounds were closed to the public when Stormont imposed a lockdown last month, however, people have called for them to be reopened.
Derry City and Strabane District said that council owned cemeteries remain closed in compliance with the NI government instruction to all councils in Northern Ireland to close all cemeteries and burial grounds except for funerals.
Should those regulations change the council will respond accordingly, a spokesperson clarified.
Local woman, Etta D’Arcy, led a dignified gathering outside the City Cemetery yesterday morning.
She lost her husband Hugh last August and expressed the heartache of being denied access to the cemetery to visit his grave.
Speaking to the Derry News today she said the issue has stirred up emotions in people across the city.
It is not about protesting, she explained, but is instead an ‘emotional plea for compassion to open those gates and let us in’.
Mrs D’Arcy is doing it for everybody affected. She visits her husband’s grave twice a day and said, ‘it is my comfort’.
“I was married to him for 46 years, he was a quiet, lovely man - an angel.
“I see other people in the same position, they are hurting. How can they stop people from visiting their loved one’s graves.”
While she recognises the importance of social distancing, Mrs D’Arcy feels that if people are allowed to walk along the quay and in parks then a cemetery should be treated no different because people are less likely to come into close contact with one another.
Due to current government and diocesan guidelines wakes and funerals are being held in private, depriving extended family and friends of last goodbyes.
Wakes are seen as a significant step in the grieving process allowing people to express their emotions and share their pain with others.
But visiting graves can be of equal import to individuals and Mrs D’Arcy sympathised with all the families currently being denied that period of mourning.
The Derry woman added: “If they reopen my heart will lift.
“If you offered me £1m I’d turn it down, it would mean more to me to open those gates.”
In her view, local representatives must be more vocal about the issue and she believes if there is enough support and goodwill then the decision can be reversed.
A spokesperson for The Executive Office informed the Derry News that ministers are due to review the regulations before May 9.
He added: “Any changes to the current position will be a matter for the entire Executive.”
DUP MLA Gary Middleton believes cemeteries and graveyards should be open to bereaved families.
“The closure is causing a lot of undue stress on grieving families. If appropriate guidance and social distancing measures are in place, this should be made possible.
“Our party fully support movement on this as quickly as possible to bring some comfort to grieving loved ones. We will be urging other parties to support this also,” he added.
Over the weekend Mark H Durkan MLA said he has written to the Health Minister asking him to explore the possibility of ‘controlled and safe’ reopening of cemeteries.
However, SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood MP did not commit one way or the other, instead saying that he will be guided by scientific advice.
The Foyle MP has written to Health Minister Robin Swann this afternoon requesting the latest medical and scientific advice from the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Officer on proposals to open cemeteries.
He said that the lockdown has been particularly painful for those experiencing loss but that any change in restrictions must be balanced with the duty to prevent further loss.
Colum Eastwood MP said: “The impact of the lockdown has been particularly hard on those experiencing the trauma of losing a loved one.
“The way we process grief and deal with the death of someone close has been coldly suspended by the coronavirus outbreak, making experiences of loss more difficult to bear. We have a duty, therefore, to approach these matters with sympathy and compassion.
“The need of people to grieve and visit their loved ones is powerful. But it must be balanced with our duty to protect public health, restrict transmission of this virus and prevent further loss.
“I have written to the Health Minister today requesting that he publishes the latest advice from the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer on the prospect of reopening cemeteries and graveyards. We must have the most up to date advice before making decisions.
“The SDLP will be guided by our responsibility to protect people. If possible, we will do all we can to relieve the emotional distress that people are under. But ultimately, we must prevent any unnecessary loss of life. The advice of the CMO and CSO will be critical in making these determinations.”
Sinn Féin was contacted for comment from a Derry MLA but did not respond at the time of publishing.
However, it is understood to be opposed to reopening with junior minister Declan Kearney telling the Assembly his party does not support the suggestion.
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