Mortonhall parents ask if babies cremated together

different treatment: Sarah Velzian received ashes from the cremation of her stillborn daughter Mia at Warriston Crematorium. Picture: Jane Barlow
different treatment: Sarah Velzian received ashes from the cremation of her stillborn daughter Mia at Warriston Crematorium. Picture: Jane Barlow
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PARENTS caught up in the Mortonhall ashes scandal today called for the investigation to examine whether babies were cremated individually.

The Mortonhall Ashes Action Committee (MAAC) said it was concerned over the lack of information surrounding the cremations of stillborn babies which had led to speculation more than one body may have been cremated together.

The city council today insisted there was “no evidence” to suggest this happened but said the inquiry by independent investigator Dame Elish Angiolini would be wide-ranging.

The action group is representing some of the parents who, over the last 45 years at Mortonhall Crematorium, were told there were no ashes from the cremation of a baby. Bereavement charity Sands Lothians discovered late last year that there were in fact ashes and they had been buried in the crematorium’s grounds.

MAAC member Sarah Velzian, whose daughter Mia was stillborn three years ago at nearly 24 weeks, said she had received ashes because the service had been carried out at Warriston Crematorium. However, she said parents at Mortonhall were told babies’ coffins were too small to go through the regular process.

“Warriston conducts a baby’s service as it would an adult’s – the coffin moves through the curtain to the burner – at Mortonhall this didn’t happen.

“What Mortonhall parents are telling us is that their babies’ coffins were placed on a table. They have no idea what 
happened to them after the service, because the coffin was still on the table when they left the chapel.

“They have had to take someone’s word that a cremation happened – in the same way they did when told that ashes weren’t possible.

“It leads us to believe that there have been mass cremations because it would be cheaper for the crematorium and because they had already told people they wouldn’t get ashes.

“It might be speculation, but it’s a question that needs answered and investigated by Dame Elish.”

She said so many parents were affected because cremations of stillborn babies were automatically booked at Mortonhall by hospitals – a claim NHS Lothian today denied.

The Mortonhall scandal has already seen an initial investigation by the city council and several parents reporting their cases to the police. The former Solicitor General of Scotland, Dame Elish, is preparing to begin her independent inquiry.

An audit of the crematorium’s records by PricewaterhouseCoopers is nearly complete, though Sands Lothians has been told that the record-keeping was “poor”.

Dorothy Maitland, 
operations manager of Sands, said: “I have heard before some suggestion of stillborn babies being cremated together but it seemed too appalling to give it credence – until now. These are the questions we hope the council’s inquiry will answer.”

NHS Lothian said parents were not forced to hold cremations for stillborn babies at Mortonhall, and apologised for any “misleading” information.

Maria Wilson, chief midwife, said: “Our dedicated team of midwives do their best to support parents at this difficult time and staff have been upset and concerned by the news that the information they have been providing to parents and families about the availability of ashes has not been correct and our thoughts are with the families affected by this.

“We have a historical relationship with Mortonhall Crematorium and provided the information from the crematorium in good faith.

“Where a family has expressed wishes to use an alternative crematorium or indicated that they would like to receive the cremated remains of their baby, our staff have worked with the funeral directors to arrange this.”

A spokeswoman for NHS Lothian added: “Our instruction and understanding is that cremations are carried out on an individual basis. NHS Lothian would be shocked if this claim that babies are being cremated together is true.”

City environment leader Councillor Lesley Hinds said: “Parents’ fears about what might have happened are understandable, but we do not have any evidence this practice happened.

“However anything historical will be looked at as part of Dame Elish’s inquiry and she’s given an assurance she will speak to as many people as possible who want to give their experience.”