EXPERTS who maintain the furnaces at scandal-hit Mortonhall Crematorium have insisted there “should always be ashes” left over from baby cremations.
Jason Lee, an engineer with Furnace Construction Company, said temperatures could be altered to ensure remains of even the smallest corpse could be returned to grieving relatives. And he said the technology to avoid incinerating the ashes of infants and babies had existed for at least 20 years.
Mortonhall has been engulfed in a highly-damaging scandal after the News revealed babies’ ashes were secretly dumped in an unmarked mass grave for decades.
Parents had been told they could not retrieve ashes to scatter but Mr Lee, a technical engineer, refuted claims that the crematorium lacked the necessary equipment to return infant ashes to families.
He said: “We always get remains. There can’t be nothing left. If you say Mortonhall, for example, it’s got four machines – three Newton and one Joule cremator. If you cremate a small coffin like a baby coffin, we have a different setting on the programme. There’s a setting for baby cremations.
“We will slow it down and reduce the gas and burner, so it won’t blow all the ash away. You’ll still get remains from the small coffin.”
In 2004, machines at Mortonhall received extensive upgrades and a modulating after-burner control was installed on each of the cremators.
Mr Lee said the technology to reduce the power of the devices, and in turn avoid incinerating all remains of small children or babies, had existed for at least 20 years.
“The setting has always been on it,” he said. “I think the Mark Three [model] could control it, which dated back to 20 years ago.”
Meanwhile, as testimonies from parents affected by the Mortonhall scandal continue to pour in, Councillor Lesley Hinds took to BBC Radio 2 to apologise for the debacle.
She said: “I want to offer my deepest apologies to all the families affected; it’s dreadful and completely unacceptable. I think we need the facts about past practices, [and have] set up an investigation to try to get answers to the questions parents are asking. We can only imagine the hurt people are feeling at this moment in time. Whether it’s past staff who worked there or not, we hope they will be able to come forward and let us know about the past practices.
“My understanding is that [the ashes] were put in their own biodegradable box and we will not be able to identify individuals.”
Charity worker Dorothy Maitland, who uncovered the scandal through her work with bereavement group Sands Lothian, said the group had been flooded with calls from affected parents. She said it would be impossible to reunite families with their babies’ ashes.
“The cremation number [on the boxes in which the ashes were interred] would have disintegrated by now and they would not be able to identify and exhume them,” she said. “The present crematorium manager and the council cannot understand [what happened] and they do not see the logic in it. I personally don’t understand it at all and it has caused so much pain for parents.”
Pensioners George and Janet Reid have spent more than 40 years wondering what happened to the remains of their three-month-old son.
Now grandparents, their first child died from pneumonia in November 1970, but Mr Reid said the couple had never been offered any ashes after the funeral at Mortonhall Crematorium.
He has been back to the crematorium only once, in 1985, and admitted that had been a troubling experience.
He said: “I was never given the opportunity to have the kid’s ashes. With the way things were at the time, a company was dealing with your grieving and I thought I was doing the right thing. But there’s some nasty stories coming out that they didn’t do the right thing. It just makes my wife and I very upset.
“I was perturbed at the time, but I was thinking the crematorium knows their business and I thought that was the right way they were going about it. But it just seems it wasn’t the right way. It was very difficult to move on.”
Phyllis Little, 53, told how she had not received any ashes from the cremation of her 11-month-old son in 1995 and said she was reliving a painful time through the revelations about Mortonhall. “On the day of the funeral I was told I couldn’t get the ashes from the undertaker,” she said. “It was very upsetting and then later I heard about a woman in 1992 who had got her ashes from her child.
“I was thinking ‘Why didn’t I get mine?’ Now I feel ‘who are they to decide what was right for me?’.
“I feel like I’ve flashed back because I have still not got closure. This has brought back a lot of memories like the bits in the hospital and after. Now I just want to find out the truth.”
Lindsay Robb, 25, lost her newborn baby, Jack, on December 16 last year and arranged a cremation at Mortonhall for January this year.
She told how, having repeatedly asked for ashes following the cremation, she was told none were available.
“Jack was premature at 24 weeks and died with within minutes of being born,” she said. “He was not a tiny baby at all. Although he was 24 weeks he was a substantial size and I remember the midwife saying he was quite a big baby for the time he was born at.
“But when I phoned Mortonhall for the ashes on the afternoon of the funeral they said they were unable to gather any ashes because he was too small. The whole thing was devastating. I had dealt with it but when all this came out it’s hit me again.”
It is understood crematorium records show there were no remains left after Jack’s cremation in January.
In another instance, Gillian McLaughlin had been informed by Edinburgh Royal Infirmary staff as recently as August that it would not be possible to retrieve ashes from her baby, who was stillborn at 38 weeks.
“It may be the case that Mortonhall has changed their practices, but they don’t appear to have communicated this with relevant agencies. I’m sure the new management at Mortonhall have the best intentions. However, in my case, I place the blame firmly at their door,” she said.
A council spokesman said: “All families who have contacted Mortonhall Crematorium since May 2011 have been informed that ashes can be collected. We are writing to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary to ensure they are aware of the current procedures.”
‘Swept up in bin’ fears are justified
THE charity boss who exposed decades of malpractice at Mortonhall Crematorium is standing by claims that the ashes of cremated babies may have been “swept up and put in the bin”.
Edinburgh City Council denied Dorothy Maitland’s allegations – made in yesterday’s Evening News – but she said this was premature ahead of a major probe to discover the truth behind the scandal.
The operations manager for bereavement charity Sands Lothian, pictured, said the council should reserve its judgement until the findings of the investigation are made public. She said: “The council don’t know whether this practice took place or not, and neither do we. I don’t think there can be any comments made until the full investigation is done.
“This is what parents have been saying to me. We don’t know this for definite but this is what parents have been thinking. Everyone whom we have spoken to has been asking ‘where are the ashes?’. I can’t answer that because I don’t know, no-one does.”
She added: “I hope what the parents have been thinking is wrong and the council can answer why there were no ashes, and if there were ashes where they went.”
Councillor Lesley Hinds, the city’s environment leader, yesterday said she had been assured there was “no evidence” babies’ ashes had been discarded in bins.
She said: “The information we have is that all ashes were put in the Garden of Remembrance. I have instructed a full investigation takes place into the historic practices at the crematorium which I hope will establish the facts of this tragic situation.”
‘YOU HAVE TO GIVE THEM TO PARENTS . . IT’S PART OF THE GRIEVING PROCESS’
Families robbed of a chance to keep their deceased baby’s ashes by Mortonhall may never be able to move on and complete the grieving process, a top psychologist has warned. Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, said losing a baby was a traumatic event for all parents, particularly mothers.
He said receiving the ashes often helped people accept the reality of the situation, adding: “If it’s either a stillborn or a child that dies early in life, these are quite significant events for women. It’s an emotional experience and if as a part of grieving it is important for them to have the ashes, you have to give them the ashes.
“For me it’s a part of the grieving process. It’s coming to terms with the reality of what’s just happened. Parents need to grieve and they need the symbolic representation of that.
“If they are still after years upset by it, you can see what harm it did do. I think for some it will have caused [emotional] damage.”
A visiting academic at Heriot-Watt University, Prof Cooper said the extent of any long-term anguish would depend on individual circumstances.
He said: “Some people may get over it in due course. For some people, it’ll just stick with them.”
East Linton couple Ros Lowrie and Paddy Burns told the News yesterday of their regret at not asking crematorium officials for the ashes of their stillborn daughter born on Christmas Eve in 2007.
Prof Cooper said: “I’m surprised the parents didn’t push the place. But they probably didn’t because they were in a process of mourning in a way and maybe they just didn’t feel strong enough or assertive enough to confront the people concerned.”
Shock and sadness online
Our revelations about Mortonhall Crematorium has sparked outrage, shock and sadness on Twitter:
@SayingGoodbyeUK: This is shocking, some people may choose not to read this
@MrsLAKnowles: “Swept up and put in the bin” I’m sickened by this
@TrippyPip: The story breaking about the mass graves in Mortonhall in Edinburgh is heartbreaking. Those poor parents
@jillastark: I’ve had relatives cremated there. Sickens me the lack of respect for people’s loved ones
@joannereilly10: Can’t imagine what parents going through. Went to see mum last night [to] make sure she’s OK as this has upset her as well. The grief people go through losing a child and this has happened.
@trapprain: Crematorium proves statutory regulation no guarantee that there will be no scandals?