Ex-Mortonhall boss breaks silence over ashes

Ex-Mortonhall boss: Impossible to guarantee that remains left after cremation were those of a child. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Ex-Mortonhall boss: Impossible to guarantee that remains left after cremation were those of a child. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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THE man who ran the scandal-hit Mortonhall Crematorium for more than 30 years has broken his silence on what went on at the site.

In a letter to the Edinburgh City Council inquiry, former boss George Bell said it was impossible to guarantee what was left following the cremation process was the actual remains of the child and not the ashes of the coffin.

And he insisted staff followed national guidelines by burying these materials, as they were “coffin ash” and not “cremated remains” – even though the industry standard makes no distinction between the two, and instead advises warning parents that the ashes may not be the actual remains of their child.

The internal statement is likely to form a crucial plank of former Dame Elish Angiolini’s probe into the scandal.

Mr Bell’s letter to Mike Rosendale, the council’s head of schools and community services, states: “Metals and other non-combustible materials such as refractory dust from the cremator hearth remain after the cremation process, but these are not ‘cremated remains’ colloquially known as ‘ashes’. Such non-combustible materials were retrieved after the cremation process and buried.”

He goes on to say that he was following guidance from the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities. However, its guidelines say parents should be warned that remains could not be guaranteed to be those of their child.

Tim Morris, chief executive of industry body the Institute of Cemetery and Cremation Management (ICCM) said: “The institute’s board’s position is that there is no difference between ashes and cremated remains. Whatever is left after the last flame has ceased is ash and that should be given to the parents.”

Mr Bell’s statement also claims senior council officials were well aware of the site’s ashes policy.

The revelations are made in a BBC Scotland documentary which is being aired tonight.

Fronted by Mark Daly, left, the programme also reveals that the ashes scandal is more widespread than at first thought, with evidence of a postcode lottery across Scotland in regards to parents receiving ashes from a cremation.

The programme claims Hazelhead Crematorium in Aberdeen failed to retrieve ashes in any of its 24 cremations over the past five years and replied that it doesn’t retrieve ashes from children as old as 18 months.

This finding was put to Mr Morris, who said Aberdeen’s response was “disturbing”.

He said: “No remains from an 18-month-old child? That must be a mistake.”

The city council told the programme it wouldn’t provide information because it is co-operating with the current inquiry.

In an interview with city environment leader Lesley Hinds, Daly has to ask eight times just what the council knew of the practices at Mortonhall, but each time no definitive answer is given.

He said: “This programme has come off the back of some excellent work done by the Edinburgh Evening News, not just in revealing the scandal but also in its handling of the case.

“In his letter, George Bell for the first time reveals what went on at Mortonhall. He claims that because babies bones are soft, he could not guarantee that what was left in the cremator after the process was the actual ‘cremated remains’.”

One parent said: “These claims beggar belief. Everyone involved will be following this latest revelation.”

Bell’s stance is in direct contrast to that of Jane Darby, the superintendent who runs the private Seafield Crematorium.

She said: “I have never carried out a cremation where there hasn’t been any ashes.”

Scotland’s Lost Babies, 10.35pm, BBC One.