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Maeve Sheehan: Burying our dead is 'a loss-making activity'

THE trust that operates several Dublin cemeteries, including historic Glasnevin, has hit back at TDs who claim its burial fees are too high, disclosing that it had a deficit of €675,000 in 2010 and is relying on its award-winning museum to generate enough income to keep cemeteries going in the future.

The charitable trust came under fire in the Dail last month when Robert Dowds, a Labour TD, raised the "very high prices" it charged grieving families. He also said the trust had a "considerable" monumental stone business and flower companies that were owned by the charity.

In a statement this weekend, the trust said the claims made in the Dail "don't hold water". It claimed the burial and cremation business has "traditionally been a consistently loss-making activity" that it "subvented" through managing its asset base of "shares, investment income and land". Since the global economic downturn, however, it has developed Glasnevin Museum into an "alternative sustainable income stream", which it hopes will make enough money to sustain the cemetery into the future.

The trust also accused Mr Dowds of quoting selectively from its fees, which it said were publicly available on its website. A spokesman said: "It is a matter of some frustration that Deputy Dowds both ignored information about burial prices provided to a member of his staff a few weeks prior to his remarks in the Dail and failed to make any effort to acquaint himself with the trust before he rose to speak that day," the spokesman said.

Mr Dowds said this weekend that he raised the issue of burial fees, after two constituents complained to him. "I initially raised it because a constituent came to me who had to suddenly bury her husband in Newlands cemetery," he said. He maintained that the fees were still not entirely clear. Mr Dowds quoted a fee of €8,000 for a plot at Palmerstown, but a spokesman for the trust said this fee was for an advance purchase of a grave providing for four burials. According to its website, the cost of a standard grave for four burials at Palmerstown is €4,000.

Mr Dowds said: "The issue was first brought to my attention by a constituent who was horrified when she saw the high cost of burying her husband. I am deeply concerned about the high cost of burials in Dublin and I am particularly concerned about the high cost of burials in graveyards owned by the Dublin cemeteries committee which is a body incorporated into statute by a private act of the Oireachtas and has charitable status," he said. "I want to make sure that people burying their loved ones are being treated fairly."

The cost of burials varies across the five Dublin graveyards operated by the trust at Glasnevin, Palmerstown, Dardistown, Deansgrange and Newlands Cross. The fees range from €1,953 for a standard grave for two burials in Glasnevin to €4,000 for four burials in Palmerstown. There are interment fees of €992, foundation fees from €410 and application fees are extra. Abridged accounts for 2010 show that the Glasnevin Trust made €2.3m in interment and other fees in 2010 -- up from €1.6m in 2005 -- although it made an overall loss of €675,050.

The cost of burials across the city's graveyards has been rising, as cemeteries fill up. South Dublin County Council, which runs 18 cemeteries at a loss, recently hiked the cost of plots from €1,200 to €1,800 while prices are also to go up at Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown council.

The trust is governed by the Dublin Cemeteries Committee, a registered charity founded by Daniel O'Connell to provide burial services to those of "one religion and all" at a time when Catholics struggled to access decent burial grounds. The committee is, in turn, governed by a private Act of the Oireachtas passed by the Dail in 1970. The Act allows members to decide who is invited to sit on the committee and the provisions of the Act can only be amended by members of the Cemeteries Committee itself.

Labour Party TD Eamonn Maloney says: "It is beyond belief that a member of parliament cannot amend a bill that was passed through the Dail in 1970. It is something I intend to raise in the Dail."

In response to questions submitted by this newspaper, the trust said there were no accountability or governance issues, no complaints of note, no official inquiries or ongoing litigation. It said the trust was deserving of and entitled to its reputation. All income generated goes towards the "future preservation of the cemeteries to the highest standards".

The committee's 13 members are entitled to a "modest stipend" of €40.50 per meeting, after the members volunteered to reduce it from €48.50 last year. An additional €36,500 was paid to members in 2010 for work done on behalf of the committee, according to the statement. The trust added that "money is not a motivational factor" for committee members who are "volunteers who give generously of their time." Current members include John Green, the chairman; Jonathan W Bailey; David Bunworth; David Casey; Gavin Caldwell; Michael Dillon; Freda Gorman; Peter Harbison; Colin Keane; Fr Vincent Kelly; David O'Reilly; John Watson; and Thomas P Whelehan.

The trust has received €9.5m of €25m in state funds pledged by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 2007. The trust was to receive €2.5m a year, but the amount has been wound down and it will get €250,000 this year.

The Act was examined by the Supreme Court in 2009 when stonemasons took an unsuccessful appeal challenging the trust's right to sell headstones and flowers at its cemeteries. David Pierce claimed he was being put out of business because a similar service was being offered by a committee that had charitable status.

In a two to one judgement, the Supreme Court backed the committee, ruling it was entitled to make and sell headstones.

Costs of burials and cremations

Interment fee: €992

Grave for two burials in Glasnevin: €1,953

Application for a headstone: €60

Laying the foundation for a single grave: €410

Cremation without an urn in Glasnevin: €596

Cremation with an aluminium urn: €626

Cremation and place in columbarium wall: €1,296

Saturday cremations: €220

Bank holiday cremations: €300

Extra 20 minutes in the church: €125

Charge for NOT arranging burial 5% on top or cremation online: of total bill

Sunday Independent