HELEN Henderson is one of possibly hundreds of mothers whose babies’ ashes were buried at Mortonhall Crematorium without their knowledge or permission.
Her eldest son, Nathan Douglas Harrower, was born on August 24 2004, ten days overdue and weighing 8lb 4oz. But the following day he died. And after his funeral she was told by a staff member at Mortonhall that there were no ashes to give to her and her husband.
The revelation eight years on that his ashes were buried in an unmarked plot has, she said, left her in “total turmoil”.
She now wants the person responsible to be “held accountable”.
The 43-year-old said: “There were complications during Nathan’s birth and there had been a lack of oxygen. He wasn’t able to do anything on his own, the hospital did everything they could but he just wasn’t going to get any better . . . and he died.”
She added: “We then had to arrange his funeral which was incredibly hard. We talked for a long time about whether he should be cremated or buried, but I just couldn’t bury him. And we knew we probably would want cremation for ourselves when the time came, so that’s what we decided.
“Our undertaker was a lovely gentleman, he explained everything to us and told us that we would get Nathan’s ashes.
“Getting through the funeral was very hard.
“A few days after, we plucked up the courage to go back to Mortonhall to collect his ashes. We went in and said to the lady that’s what we were there for. She said ‘From a baby? Well I’m sorry you don’t get any ashes from a baby’. I just collapsed. I started howling and crying on the floor.
“We said ‘What do you mean? Don’t be ridiculous, we were told by the undertaker that we would get him and be able to put him where we wanted him to be’. She just said ‘Sorry, you don’t get them’ and then telephoned the undertaker to tell them not to tell any parents again that they could get the ashes. She put the blame fully on the undertaker for telling us we would get them.
“That day I felt that my son had died again, if that’s possible. There are no words to describe how it felt to be told we weren’t going to get him home.”
Helen, from Sighthill, who is a volunteer with Sands Lothians, has another son Owen Harrower, now six. But the shock of not receiving Nathan’s ashes, she says, changed her life forever. “I have never really recovered from that. I’ve had years of counselling, my marriage broke down. I felt so guilty for cremating my son.
“Then two weeks ago, lo and behold, I got taken to a place at the crematorium and shown where Nathan’s ashes were buried. I could not believe it. It’s been like going through it all again. It’s becoming more awful as the days go by – and especially as the number of parents affected becomes greater.”
She adds: “My husband and I are divorced and going on with our lives, but I had to phone him and tell him this dreadful thing. He was totally shocked as well. This just wasn’t what we wanted for Nathan at all.
“I have been led to believe this has happened because of bad management and it was just the person in charge’s decision not to give ashes to parents. Nathan was 8lb 4oz – there would definitely have been ashes. The idea that there was nothing is just ridiculous.
“That woman could have given me just one ash in a box, but she stole that from me. I had already had my heart ripped out and she did it again. Now it’s happened again. The pain of having to tell my close family . . . it’s left us all in total turmoil.
“Whoever it was who decided that parents couldn’t get ashes has to be made to know what they’ve done to people. I might be considered lucky because I now know there were ashes and where they are, but what about the parents who will never know?
“We’re now trying to think about what the best thing is to do. Nothing will replace Nathan and we’ll never get his ashes back now, but I want the person who has done this to me – and to other parents – to be held accountable for what they’ve done. An apology from the council is not enough.”
‘I COULDN’T BELIEVE THE STAFF WOULD LIE TO ME’
IT was 26 years ago that Dorothy Maitland lost one of her twin daughters.
Kaelen died in her mother’s arms at just nine days old. She’d been born four weeks early with a heart disorder, but lost her fight for life after suffering a brain haemorrhage and kidney failure. However her twin, Kirsten, thrived and survived. Burying one baby while tending to the needs of another was traumatic, but at least Dorothy was under no illusion that she would receive the ashes of her child.
“We were told from the start that there were no ashes when a baby was cremated,” she said. “Looking back now I wonder why I didn’t question it. But when you’re being told that by someone who is looking after your baby’s funeral service, I suppose you just accept it. To find out now that there were ashes, and that they were buried at Mortonhall, has come as a complete shock.”
The 57-year-old operations manager with Sands Lothians added: “This is affecting a lot of parents and to be honest I think the council is panicking a bit. They are now trying to find out why this has happened. It’s just crazy that parents were told there were no ashes while all the time staff were keeping them, putting them in boxes and burying them.
“I don’t understand what it’s all about. I am furious about it as a bereaved parent but also because for years we at Sands have been giving out false information to other grieving parents.
“We only found out about this because we’re pulling together some information on crematoria and we discovered what happened at Seafield and Warriston – and that parents always get the ashes. At first I defended Mortonhall, I couldn’t believe the staff there would lie to me. But I went and asked the new manager why parents weren’t getting the ashes. He had no idea – he has changed the policy. He just said it was down to laziness and a bad attitude.
“He looked up the records for Kaelen and took me to the spot where her ashes are buried. It’s not only me dealing with it, but my ex-husband and also Kaelen’s surviving twin Kirsten.”
Dorothy placed a memorial granite vase dedicated to Kaelen in Easter Road cemetery next to her own father’s gravestone to have somewhere to visit and remember her daughter. “That was 18 years before I found out she was buried at Mortonhall. Now I don’t know what I feel. It’s like there’s been no respect. I’m not surprised some parents are already talking to lawyers.
“Sunday was our annual memorial service day and I normally manage through it okay, but this time it was like I was back 26 years ago and it was all happening all over again.”