Parents call for public inquiry over ashes scandal
Bereaved parents have called for a full public inquiry after a report on a baby ashes scandal at a crematorium found hundreds of people face a “lifetime of uncertainty” over what happened to their child’s remains.
Over decades, staff at Edinburgh’s Mortonhall crematorium secretly disposed of the remains of stillborn and dead newborn babies without their families’ knowledge.
Parents were instead told there would be no ashes left to scatter following cremation.
A year-long inquiry into the crematorium’s practices from 1967 to 2011 concluded that the situation was a “great tragedy” which left many parents facing uncertainty about their baby’s final resting place.
A 600-page report by former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini contains 22 recommendations for the council and other agencies to pursue in the wake of the scandal.
Campaigners have demanded a wider probe looking at the situation surrounding infant cremations across the whole of Scotland, believing no community in the country will be untouched by the issue.
Addressing a press conference in Edinburgh, bereaved parent Willie Reid said the report does not give answers “for what has happened across Scotland”.
“All I can say at this time is that our fight for a public inquiry must still go on,” he said.
Solicitor Patrick McGuire, of Thompsons Solicitors, who represents many of the families involved, said they have wanted the answers they need to move on and for lessons to be learned so that no-one else has to suffer in the same way.
“I think the only route now is with an inquiry that looks across all of Scotland,” he said.
“By the time all of the truth is found out about this there won’t be a single community in Scotland that hasn’t been affected by this.”
Dame Elish was appointed by Edinburgh Council at the start of last year to head an investigation into the former practices at Mortonhall after they were uncovered in 2012 by child bereavement charity Sands Lothians.
Her final report centred around the cases of more than 250 babies.
It stated: “The outcome of this investigation will cause more pain and distress for most of the parents of the 253 babies who are the subject of this investigation.
“It cannot be said with any certainty what remains of which babies are interred in the garden of remembrance (at Mortonhall).”
It added: “The great tragedy of these events over many years is that many parents will now be left with a lifetime of uncertainty about their baby’s final resting place.”
The crematorium was considered by the council as a model of excellence but “the reality was very different so far as it related to the cremation of foetuses, stillborn and neonatal babies”, the report said.
It spoke of a belief at Mortonhall that the bones of foetuses and stillborn and neonatal babies could not survive the cremation process, despite information to the contrary. The investigation found “overwhelming evidence” that foetal bones do survive cremation.
The investigation revealed “inertia” over many years on the part of senior management at Mortonhall in their “continuing failure” to investigate why other city crematoriums were apparently successful in recovering babies’ remains.
There was also a “long-standing and wholesale failure” to comply with the duty to keep accurate records of the cremation of babies at Mortonhall, the report stated.
It found the situation at the Edinburgh site stemmed from a failure to reflect changes in social attitudes over the decades and that there was a lack of meaningful supervision or leadership from senior management on the issue.
It is “likely” that the ashes of some babies will have been mixed in with the next adult to be cremated the following morning, the report said.
Dame Elish said parents’ distress at losing a child was compounded years later by “agonising uncertainty about the existence of ashes following the cremation of their baby and, if such ashes do exist, the whereabouts of the resting place of their baby’s ashes”.
Among the recommendations in the report are suggestions that Edinburgh Council review the manner in which the crematorium is managed in the future.
It also stated: “Unless a crematorium can demonstrate their competence in achieving remains and show consistent evidence of the sensitive treatment of next of kin in such cases, it is recommended they should not be permitted to continue the cremation of these babies.”
Dorothy Maitland, operations director of Sands Lothians, one of the affected parents, said she felt “total devastation”.
“My daughter’s ashes could be in the garden of remembrance, she could be next to a skip or she could be in someone else’s urn,” she said.
“I also feel very let down by a previous manager at Mortonhall, he blatantly told me on many occasions, ‘You don’t get ashes from a baby’.
“He seemed so genuine, I feel really let down. Worse than that, I feel like I’ve let my baby and my family down. We’ve wandered for years around Mortonhall wanting to put flowers down but didn’t know where to put them.
“I was at Mortonhall on Saturday but now I get no comfort from that place at all.”
Madelaine Cave said her daughter Megan Heather died in 1994 at just 15-days -old.
“In reading the report it’s clear that there were remains for Megan,” she said.
“There seems to be a few option over what has happened to the remains of my daughter.”
She went on: “I don’t have any hope, I will never, ever know what happened to my baby’s ashes, I will never know her final resting place.
“For 18 years I went up into the hills where we were going to scatter her ashes and I grieved for her there. I don’t know what to do now.”
Edinburgh City Council chief executive Sue Bruce said: “On behalf of the council, I would like to offer my sincere apologies to the bereaved families for the distress they have suffered as a result of the practices at Mortonhall Crematorium.”
She said she would work with colleagues to take forward the recommendations.
Since the Mortonhall revelations emerged, some other local authorities, including Glasgow and Aberdeen city councils, faced questions about their practices.
A separate independent commission, led by former High Court judge Lord Bonomy, was set up to review policies and practice across Scotland in relation to the handling of ashes following the cremation of babies and infants. His report is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
Public health minister Michael Matheson said: “The findings from Dame Elish’s report will be used to inform the wider national review and any recommendations for government will be looked at by the commission as part of their investigation.
“This work is entirely independent of government and the commission must be able to complete its work before we can decide on any next steps.”
Scottish Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale described the report as harrowing.
“Reading it, I struggled to understand how what happened at Mortonhall could have occurred for so long unquestioned,” she said.