THE controversial deadline for the removal of memorials on unmarked babies’ graves to the rear of Milltown Cemetery has been extended by three weeks after complaints the initial deadline was “too soon”. In last week’s Andersonstown News it was revealed that the Diocese of Down and Connor had contacted families with loved ones buried in the land to ask them to remove all temporary memorials by the beginning of this week to allow the commencement of restoration work on the burial plot that was formerly bogland.

The Diocese told us this week that the March 26 deadline has now been moved to April 13 and that families will be able to make use of a “temporary group memorial plot close to the current location” for their memorials until the work is completed.

The memorials can then be “re-erected at individual plots in time for Cemetery Sunday on June 3”.

“Over the past 18 months I have consulted with all the concerned groups to address the need for this area of the cemetery to be suitably and sensitively laid out in order to give the infants and adults buried in this section a dignified place of rest and to bring some measure of closure, healing and peace to their relatives,” said Fr Martin Graham, administrator of Milltown Cemetery.

“I am very aware, and understand, that people are concerned about the resting place of their loved ones and want to reassure all that the Bishop, cemetery staff and our professional teams will do everything possible to undertake the work as thoroughly and quickly as possible. Any memorials that will have to be temporarily moved will be reinstated at each plot once the work has been completed.”

The Diocese added: “Once the ground has settled and the grass has been seeded the Diocese will erect permanent headstones at each of the plots.”

The sensitive issue has sparked a war of words between two opposing groups representing families of those buried in the plot in question.

The Relatives of the Milltown Babies group say they are happy to comply with the restoration work and have already moved their memorials to the temporary plot provided nearby.

“We agreed this work should be done and we were given good notice of the plan of work,” said group member Donna Hanvey, whose brother Michael Patrick was buried there in 1966 after dying shortly after birth.

“We can move the mementos back again once the work is done and in time for Cemetery Sunday.  After that there are plans to build a more permanent memorial to our loved ones and maybe a proper garden. Any plans will have the involvement of all the families.”

However, a separate group of relatives say they will not be removing their memorials and have called on the Diocese to delay the works until a meeting has been held to resolve the issue.

They say more remains are being discovered on the six-acre plot and that it is unfair to ask families who have just discovered their loved ones to move their memorials.

“Our families will not be removing our family memorials at this time,” said the spokesperson, who asked not  to be named.

“A meeting and a delay of works has been refused to our families [by the Diocese]. The Diocese of Down and Connor is aware that every day families come to us for help to find their infants. To remove these [memorials] at this stage while works are ongoing is totally the wrong thing to do to these families.”