Family who fell victim to cemetery fraud tells of anguish

Frances Corbett, left, and her sister Dot Fraser, have spoken out about how Willie Henderson's actions affected their family. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Frances Corbett, left, and her sister Dot Fraser, have spoken out about how Willie Henderson's actions affected their family. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Two sisters who fell victim to a cemetery conman have recalled their anguish upon discovering he had their mother buried under an access path.

William Henderson, the former superintendent at Mount Vernon cemetery, pocketed thousands after he forged burial deeds and sold plots to bereaved families which either did not exist or already contained remains.

Caretaker Willie Henderson pled guilty to misselling plots. Picture: Neil Hanna

Caretaker Willie Henderson pled guilty to misselling plots. Picture: Neil Hanna

The 46-year-old, of Baird’s Way, Bonnyrigg, yesterday pleaded guilty to one count of fraud covering 13 individual cases across a nine-year period from 2006 to 2015.

One of the families affected by his trail of deceit are the relatives of Rose Walker, who was buried at the cemetery in 2013 after passing away from kidney failure at the age of 86.

However, it was only after her funeral that Mrs Walker’s family realised Henderson had issued them with a bogus burial deed, and that their mother had in fact been buried under an access path.

One of her daughters, Dot Fraser, said the grave’s abnormal location had not been immediately obvious due to the fact the ground had been covered in snow on the day of her mother’s funeral.

“When we go now it’s quite clearly an access path,” she said.

“My mum certainly isn’t the only grave in the access path, there’s a number you can see that are dotted right along the path round the priests’ circle.

“I suggest that these are the graves that Willie Henderson has organised. It’s not a natural area within the graveyard.”

Dot, 63, explained she never met Henderson herself but had been told by all those who had that he seemed pleasant and helpful.

But she added: “He might be very helpful and pleasant but these offences have taken place over a lengthy period of time [and were] carefully planned. He’s earned a lot of money on the back of people when they are at their lowest point.

“People are grieving for their family members and he’s got right in there and saw an opportunity. He’s taken advantage of people at their very 
lowest stage.”

Henderson’s criminal activity typically involved him identifying and selling space in the cemetery to use for burials, for example unused areas under the site’s pathways.

However, two cases involved “over burial”, where grieving families were sold plots which they believed to be empty only to discover later that they already contained someone else’s remains.

• READ MORE: Cemetery worker guilty of misselling burial plots

Dot’s sister, Frances Corbett, said one of the most distressing aspects of what happened had been the question of whether or not their 96-year-old father, who is still alive, would be able to be buried alongside his wife in the same plot.

“We had to wait for the Archdiocese to probe [the] grave to find out if there was enough space to go in,” she said.

“They got back to us saying that would be possible so that was a big weight off our shoulders.”

She said it was clear Henderson – known to many as “Willie” – had “no morals whatsoever” and that he had caused a great deal of stress for all the family.

It was the pair’s younger sister, who did not want to be named, who helped make the burial arrangements and was told by Henderson that a double grave was available.

Dot explained: “[She] actually met with Willie and gave him cash and that was important, it had to be cash. It was about £650.

“It wasn’t until much later until after the police informed us about Henderson that [she] opened the deed and found out that it was a piece of rubbish.

“It had the wrong date on it – it was dated before my mum died. It was obviously a photocopy.

“She carries a lot of guilt about not seeing it at the time.”

The sisters said their mother, a miner’s daughter and one of eight children, came to Edinburgh aged 14 and worked at what was previously the City Hospital.

“She was 4ft 8 and a half, very fiery, very loving and had a great sense of humour,” said Frances. “She was great – loved her grandchildren, loved her great-grandchildren and was just a lovely, lovely mum. We miss her terribly.”

Edinburgh Sheriff Court yesterday heard Henderson’s actions resulted in him defrauding the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh – which runs the cemetery – of more than £14,000 over the nine-year period.

The Archdiocese explained Henderson was employed at Mount Vernon Cemetery from 1997 until 2015.

He became acting superintendent in October 2012 and was confirmed in that post in March 2014.

During this time, the cemetery operated at arm’s length from the central administration of the Archdiocese, with responsibility for its management being largely entrusted to the on-site cemetery superintendent.

The arrival of Archbishop Leo Cushley as the new Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh in September 2013 saw the beginning of a review and overhaul of the internal governance of the Archdiocese.

It is this process which began to bring to light some concerns regarding the on-site management of Mount Vernon in late 2014.

They said that on January 22, 2015, the Archdiocese received a complaint from an undertaker regarding a potentially fraudulent burial deed. The next day, Henderson agreed to go on leave while the complaint was investigated by the Archdiocese. Police Scotland was also alerted.

At the same time, the responsibility for the administration of burials at Mount Vernon was removed from the on-site office at the cemetery and given over to staff at the headquarters of the Archdiocese based in Edinburgh.

Henderson was then formally suspended by the Archdiocese on April 17, 2015, and tendered his resignation a few weeks later on May 1.

In November 2016, he was then arrested by Police Scotland and charged with fraud. The charge of fraud refers to any theft which was also followed by fraudulent adjustment of the burial record and sales ledger.

A telephone hotline was later set up by the Archdiocese to offer support for anybody concerned that they had been affected by his criminal activities.

Detective Chief Inspector Paul Grainger, who led on this investigation, said Henderson had targeted “vulnerable” families while they were grieving and distressed for his own financial gain.

He said: “This was a challenging and complex investigation from the beginning and involved officers having to engage with families who had been defrauded by Henderson over a number of years.

“In many some of these occasions they had to relive very painful memories and discuss the deaths of loved ones and so we took a very sensitive approach. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all families who supported us in our inquiry.

“While nothing can undo the distress Henderson’s actions have had on the families affected, I hope that [yesterday’s] outcome will offer them some comfort that both Police Scotland and the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh have taken significant action to bring the perpetrator to justice and to ensure something like this does not happen at the cemetery again.”

Dot said no sentence would undo what Henderson had done, saying she and her family wanted to move on. She added: “I think it’s important that we’re not always going to be a victim of Willie Henderson. We’ll get over this.”

The case has been adjourned until September 29 for a social work report to be prepared.