'Sunderland City Council ruined my mam's funeral': Family's pain after grave not ready for burial

Credit: Jenna Douthwaite

A Sunderland family has shared its pain after the grave of grandmother Joan Stokoe was not ready for her burial service.

On Monday 11 April, two broken down diggers belonging to Sunderland City Council meant the service took place above ground 90 minutes later than scheduled, her family told ITV News Tyne Tees.

Attendees waited in their cars outside Grangetown Cemetery before the pallbearers eventually carried Ms Stokoe's coffin to a wooden board placed over the grave for a traumatic 'burial'.

Daughter Jenna Douthwaite said she has suffered sleepless nights since the ordeal and urges the council to take steps to ensure it never happens again.

Jenna Douthwaite Credit: Jenna Douthwaite and Joan Stokoe

"When we went to the cemetery, we were asked to wait outside. Then, when we went to drive to the grave, we got held off again," she recalled.

"It turned out the grave wasn't actually ready for burial."

According to Jenna, the original digger's scoop detached and fell into the grave. The cemetery workers then had to find another digger to remove it, but the hydraulics of the second digger broke.

"When I could see the funeral director was pacing and the Reverend wasn’t very happy, we thought 'something’s not right here'," she said.

"All you could see was a group of men - who turned out to be gravediggers - standing around a machine, scratching their heads and talking. 

"I was more upset because I could see how upset my dad was getting. He’d just been widowed, he’d been with my mum 50 years, he’d never been away from her and now he was confused about why we couldn’t lay her to rest - because we couldn’t get any straight answers."

Credit: Jenna Douthwaite

Ms Stokoe was buried later that day without friends and family present.

Sunderland City Council has offered its "sympathies and apologies" for the "rare and regrettable incident" and waived the burial fee.

They say preparation for the digging began four hours before the scheduled burial time and gave the family the choice to delaying the funeral for 24 hours. Ms Douthwaite said she is "still waiting" for her letter of apology."[Waiving the fee] takes a lot of pressure off… but it’s not going to take those memories away," she said.

"They cannot let this happen again. It’s so upsetting - that full day was ruined for us."

Full statement from Sunderland City Council’s Assistant Director of Community Resilience Sandra Mitchell:

"We very much understand how this was a rare, regrettable and unfortunate incident.

"Staff are upset about what happened and everyone who works at Sunderland Cemetery offers their sympathies and apologies.

"We are working with the family to address their concerns."