Mortonhall: Conflicting beliefs add to anguish

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THE investigation into the Mortonhall scandal reveals a mass of contradictory evidence from former and current Mortonhall crematorium staff over the disposal of babies’ ashes.

The differing interpretations of the practices and policies at the council-run crematorium are laid bare in the 600-page report written by former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini, in which she accuses former managers of “inertia or indifference” towards parents’ grief and the collection of baby ashes.

The report, which includes expert opinion from QCs, the industry’s professional bodies, and even a criminal forensic anthropologist, was published by the city council yesterday.

It contains interviews with past and present staff of Mortonhall, including the former managers who many parents have accused of betraying them by saying their babies would leave no ashes when cremated. Instead, remains were gathered and interred in the crematorium’s grounds or even mixed with adult cremated remains.

While the former bosses of Mortonhall still claim in the report that there were no ashes after cremation, other staff have said they alerted their managers when bones were discovered.

There are also conflicting reports from staff about the use of trays for the collection of babies’ ashes, with some claiming their use was banned in the 1980s and others suggesting they were being used well into the 1990s – which is why remains were collected, put into envelopes and interred.

Staff reports also suggest that the crematorium’s former superintendent, Anne Grannum, was always first into work every morning to switch on the cremators, so any ashes which may have remained after overnight baby cremations disappeared with the first adult one of the day.

But in a further twist last night, George Bell, the crematorium’s bereavement and public health manager from 1981 to 2011, even denied he had told Dame Elish there were never any remains.

Mr Bell, who now runs a crematorium in Melrose, said: “I’ve not had the chance to read the report. It’s a very long document and I would need time to study it carefully before comment. But what I said to Dame Elish was there would be occasions when there might not be ashes. We, I, had a policy that there would be no ashes but each coffin was treated individually and if ashes were present they would be given back to the funeral director or applicant. We did not have any real communication with families. That was done by the funeral director and hospital staff.”

He added that he was often absent from Mortonhall due to his responsibilities overseeing the city mortuary and pest control services.

He said: “I spent a lot of time away from the crematorium. I don’t want to implicate my colleagues but there was not a policy that foetal remains meant no ashes.”

Yet in her report, Dame Elish quotes retired cremator operator Raymond Kay saying: “We would put the baby’s coffin in a tray with a flat bottom, lay it on the ledge of the cremator and pushed it in with a rake. Then we left it overnight.

“In the morning we would pull the tray out and leave the remains to cool. At that stage bones would be visible. That was what we did for stillborn babies and infants up to two or three years old. We picked out the bones and put them in a cloth bag. We rolled the bag to grind the bones and put them in a white envelope which was buried by the cross.”

But Mr Bell told the investigation he was unaware of any bones from babies as recollected by Mr Kay. And he claimed babies were cremated in between adult cremations, while all other staff told the inquiry that babies were always cremated at night.

Mr Bell is quoted as saying: “It was from speaking to colleagues and my line manager at that time, Mr Jimmy Millar, who had knowledge, that my understanding developed that there were no remains.

“My personal view is that it is terrible to give refractory dust and wood ash to parents and say it is cremated remains, because it is not. There is no definition of ashes in law. It is only because of what is happening now that this has come to the fore.”

Anne Grannum, who worked at the crematorium from 1981 to 2011, rising from clerical officer to superintendent, said in the report: “No cremator operators ever came into my office to tell me they had found remains from a baby. If cremated remains had been found I would have contacted the funeral director and they would contact the family.”

Yet the evidence of cremator operators and assistants was that remains were discovered and when Grannum was told she informed them to have them buried in the Garden of Remembrance.

Julie Wilson, who still works at Mortonhall, told Dame Elish – who found her evidence to be “clear and confident” – that: “The adults took priority. We were told to do babies at the end of the day on auto cool. We tried to get remains. Sometimes you did, sometimes you didn’t.

“Sometimes I saw bones, maybe a centimetre or so. All of it went into a bag or box. If there were remains we would tell Anne Grannum. If we had some ashes we put them on the trolley to be taken to the Garden of Rest.”

Paul Jackson told the inquiry: “We did baby cremations at the end of the day. For a long time Anne Grannum would already have the cremators on when we came in in the morning. But when we were trying to save on gas we would switch some on later.

“When we did the door check we saw something was there and the penny dropped with me. You can’t burn something and have nothing left.

“I saw small bones. It was not hard to see them. I would put the coffin inside an ash pan and then into the cremator. When we took it out you could see bones, even a skull cap.

“Before I saw this myself I was told by Anne Grannum that there was nothing left. There was a genuine belief that was the case. When I saw this I spoke to Anne and showed them to her and she said ‘Garden of Remembrance, Garden of Remembrance, that’s what happens’. I felt pretty bad about that. I found myself getting pretty fed up.

“I have watched from a distance the ashes being interred on the hill. If Anne Grannum says she never saw bones I have no explanation for that.”

George Scott, a cremator operator from 2003 to 2007, said he was “never present” when babies’ ashes were found.

He said: “It was my understanding that the babies didn’t have any bones. It was just fluid. None of my colleagues ever recovered babies’ ashes. If there was any residual ash left it would be mixed in with the first adult cremation in the morning.”

Bill Stewart, another former cremator operator, said he “asked the question” but he too was told there were no remains from babies.

“I find it hard to believe the records say interred in the Garden,” he said. “Even if it’s a pre-24-week baby I think parents should be given back what is there if there is anything. I am shocked. None of the staff knew that. If I had known I would have kicked up a stink.”

Grannum told Dame Elish they used to do the cremations on residual heat at the end of the working day.

She said: “Baby coffins, depending on size, would be placed on the lip inside the cremator door. I saw for myself though that there was nothing there when I went to put the machines on in the morning.”

But Bill Stewart said: “The reason why Anne Grannum instructed us to carry out infant cremations overnight with the machines switched off was for efficiency. Adult cremations could not be done overnight so from a monetary point of view adults were prioritised in the daytime with the machines switched on and the infants cremated at night with the machines switched off.”

Grannum and Bell both admit to knowing that Seafield and Warriston crematoria did collect baby ashes.

Dame Elish states: “Surprisingly Mrs Grannum’s curiosity over the many years she worked there never led her or Mr Bell to telephone or seek advice from or even visit Seafield or Warriston about this issue. The complete absence of any professional curiosity or demand for confirmation of these beliefs is difficult to assess as anything other than inertia or indifference to the needs of parents in such tragic circumstances. It is made all the worse by the discovery that the beliefs of these many professionals is not supported by expert opinion.”

Ms Grannum was unavailable for comment.

Alan Slater, chief executive of the National Association of Funeral Directors, said: “Funeral directors take their responsibilities extremely seriously.”

‘WE ASKED FOR GUIDANCE 25 YEARS AGO’

THE former head of bereavement services at Edinburgh City Council today claimed crematoria operators asked government bosses for guidance on the disposal of baby ashes more than 25 years ago.

George Bell worked for the council for over 30 years, during which time he oversaw Mortonhall – Scotland’s busiest crematorium – and more than 40 cemeteries and churchyards before retiring in 2011.

Bell now claims issues raised with the government fell on “deaf ears” despite concern about foetal remains – at a time when the “industry needed a steer”.

And documents show that another former cemeteries and crematoria manager raised the issue with St Andrews House in 1988.

Mr Bell said :“They are trying to put the blame on Mortonhall Crematorium. It’s not as if we sat on our tails and said nothing. We did attempt as an industry to do something about it.

“We are looking at something in 2014 that goes way back to the 1980s and before. The politicians failed to protect the public. We personally raised the issue about foetal remains. We needed guidance, because the industry needed a steer, but again that fell on deaf ears. The people that govern the regulations and the law are well aware of this situation. The whole industry was aware and parliament were again reminded in 1989.”

Documents from the time reveal the Cemeteries and Crematoria Service in Glasgow addressed the issue of “cremation/interment of non-viable foetuses”