Mortonhall scandal: ‘Sorry cannot cover it’

Madelaine Cave is comforted at yesterday's press conference. Picture: Neil Hanna
Madelaine Cave is comforted at yesterday's press conference. Picture: Neil Hanna
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SHE spoke eloquently and bravely, but as grieving mother Madelaine Cave reflected on almost exactly 20 years of anguish spent wondering what happened to her baby, there was no concealing the pain.

In a stuffy room with the report that picks over the Mortonhall ashes scandal laid in front her, with lawyers and other parents by her side, the raw emotion finally flowed.

Shaking slightly, drawn features crumbling behind a 
curtain of wavy brown hair and in a voice that cracked with the weight of her words, she recalled precious last moments with her little girl, kissing her, holding her hand, saying goodbye.

As she handed over her tiny coffin, Madelaine, 55, truly believed she was delivering her precious child into the equally tender and considerate care of Mortonhall Crematorium’s staff. “I trusted them to look after her the way I had done,” she said yesterday. “I will never know what happened to my baby’s ashes. I will never know her final resting place.”

She was among the families who gathered with lawyers having barely had time to digest the harrowing detail of Dame Elish Angiolini’s report.

The shocking revelation that their much loved infants’ ashes may have been scooped up with those of a strange adult or unceremoniously vacuumed from the crematorium flue and dumped next to a skip, was still almost unbelievable. It is not a bit of wonder there are now calls for a full Scotland-wide inquiry – and a list of damning recommendations to ensure this never happens again.

Madelaine, from North Berwick, told how she tenderly prepared for daughter Meghan Holm’s funeral after she died suddenly at home just 15 days after she was born on May 19, 1994.

“My sister put a dress on Meghan, she had never worn her dress,” said Madelaine. “She had a little silver bracelet on her wrist. My mother brought a pillow I had slept on and put it in a pink satin cover.

“I held my baby, kissed her and stroked her.

“I held her hands and I told her how much I loved her and how much I would miss her.

“I cried for her, my family cried for her to the last second and then we passed her into the care of Mortonhall. I trusted them to look after her the way I had done. “I don’t have any hope. I will never know what happened to my baby’s ashes. I will never know her final resting place.”

Having read the report, Madelaine, the ex-wife of a former US consul-general to Scotland, now knows there were “options” for Meghan’s remains. “One is that they were swept out in the morning with whoever the first adult was to be cremated after her,” she said. “Who that adult was, where those remains went, what was done with them, who knows?

“Her remains could have blown around inside the furnaces and then been hoovered out and the bags buried next to the skip outside Mortonhall Crematorium. It’s possible her remains were in fact buried in the Garden of Remembrance.

“For 18 years I went up to the hills where we were going to scatter my daughter’s ashes amongst the heather and I grieved for her. Now I don’t know what to do.”

Arlene McDougall, 53, from Howdenhall, had also sought answers from the report – but what happened to her son, Fraser, after he died in February 1999 remains a mystery. “He was the most perfect, beautiful little boy,” she said. “Long fingernails and eyelashes, tiny hands, just not mature enough. He breathed, he fought, he died in my arms.”

She and husband Gary had received conflicting details from Mortonhall about what had happened to his remains.

Yesterday’s report, however, brought no resolution.

“The report quite clearly tells me that no-one knows what happened to him,” she said. “It just seems to get worse.

“I would just like it to be put to bed. I was hoping for that today because it is so exhausting. This isn’t about compensation,” she stressed, “because nothing could compensate for what has happened.”

Husband Gary added: “The report is damning. Edinburgh City Council and the practices at Mortonhall to say the least were Draconian. What they have done to me and my family and all the rest involved is an absolute outrage.”

Dorothy Maitland, operations manager of Sands Lothians, and who lost her nine-days-old daughter, Kaelen, in 1986, said the report revealed a “total breakdown” on many levels, including funeral directors and hospital staff who told famlies there would be no remains. “They should all have been working to the same rules,” she said. “We feel total devastation today. Mortonhall has become the most awful place.”

Catherine Telford and Helen Fradley leaned on each other for support as details of the report emerged. They were friends at school in Granton reunited years later by the Mortonhall scandal.

Catherine, 52, whose premature son, George, died in 1993, said: “This has broken my heart. My daughter, Rosie, lived for nine days and we held her service at Seafield and I have her remains at home, but nothing for my son George. I only want to know what happened.”

Helen, also 52, believed her premature daughter, Annie, had been cremated and her ashes scattered in the Garden of Remembrance. “Now I don’t know,” she said. “It’s the mystery of it that’s so hard.”

Tracy Watt’s son, Lewis Deed, survived for 19 hours after his birth in May 1991.

“This time 23 years ago I was planning Lewis’s funeral,” she sobbed. “Now I feel like I’m doing it all over again. All I wanted was my son to get treated with some dignity and respect. I couldn’t do anything for him any more so I handed him over to people I thought I could trust. All we have ever wanted to know is the truth.”

The 46-year-old said she has been left with feelings of “anger and disbelief” at how babies seemed to be bottom of the list at Mortonhall. “It makes you think they obviously weren’t important to them.”

And Helen Henderson, 44, of Sighthill, who lost her full-term son, Nathan, when he was a day old, said: “The report has just proved to us that we could have had the ashes for our babies, which makes me so angry.

“It comes down to the fact that someone couldn’t be bothered to look through a window or open a door. It lets me know that the reason I have nothing of my son is because someone didn’t do their job properly. That is no comfort. It was no-one’s right to take that choice away from me and all these other parents but that’s what they did.

“Sorry isn’t good enough, sorry cannot cover it – it doesn’t come close. You say sorry if you bump into someone in the street, not for depriving parents of their dead baby’s ashes.”

Lawyer Patrick Maguire, partner at Thompsons Solicitors, which is representing the families, said the brutal revelation that babies’ ashes were left overnight and then gathered next day with the first adult cremation had left those invovled reeling. “They need truth and answers because they need to move on,” he said.

Clinical prose gives each baby a serial number

HARROWING snapshots of lives scarred by the Mortonhall scandal emerged in page after page of heartbreaking testimony.

Almost 350 pages long, the section of the report that probes each individual case lays bare the ongoing agony suffered by grieving mothers and fathers.

The cold, clinical prose – which sees each lost baby assigned a serial number – only serves to underline the scale of the scandal.

One anguished mother told the investigation even if she could not have had the ashes returned “the equivalent of a pinch of salt,a grain of rice, that would have been enough”.

One father told how his son had died at around 20 and 22 weeks’ gestation in 1994.

He carried his son’s coffin into Mortonhall crematorium and yet no record of the cremation or burial was found for the child.

Another summed up her anguish following the loss of her eight-day-old baby in 2001.

“The documents say ‘interred by staff – garden of remembrance. It is very hard for us to find any peace at all.”

The report’s recommendations

THE report contains a series of recommendations which will now be taken forward by the council and other relevant agencies including:

• National research to establish the most effective, practical and safest practices for recovering babies’ ashes. The cremation of nonviable (pre-24 week) foetuses should also be regulated by legislation. The research should examine the most effective equipment to retrieve remains in the cremation of foetuses, stillborn and neonatal babies.

• Unless a crematorium can demonstrate its competence in achieving remains and show consistent sensitivity to parents it should not be allowed to cremate babies.

• The application form for cremation should be clarified with a bold explanation about the prospects of recovering ashes from Mortonhall printed on the form until equipment, training and working practices have improved. Anyone guiding parents through the form, such as funeral home or hospital staff, should be fully trained to give clear and accurate advice. A clear protocol about the responsibilities of these professionals should be developed as a matter of urgency and approved by all agencies involved in dealing with parents in this last act of care.

• Legislation on regulations relating to stillborn and pre-24 week foetuses needs urgently clarifying. The matter has been drawn to the attention of Lord Bonomy’s Commission for consideration of legislative amendment. Stillborn babies should be considered a “deceased person”. Forms should also be modified to take into account the special circumstances of the cremation of nonviable foetuses and stillborn babies.

• The term “ashes” should also be defined in legislation to avoid distinguishing between residue from the deceased and that from other things cremated with the body. Parents said they would have liked ashes from the coffin, baby blanket and toys which formed part of the babies’ last resting place.

• Overnight cremation can only take place if the crematorium complies with Scottish Environmental Protection Agency permit rules such as the crematorium being manned and the temperature monitored. Steps must be taken to ensure terms are being met or the permit must be modified by SEPA.

• The council should look at the “exemplary” practices at Seafield and Warriston and the culture of care and attention to families displayed at these crematoriums. More training should be carried out for Mortonhall staff to give them full understanding of what happens to baby remains during cremation.

• NHS Lothian employees and funeral directors who are in the position of providing advice and guidance to parents on the last act of care should be fully trained and aware of the basis for their advice and the legal implications for next of kin of the advice they provide. Mandatory training to midwives should be considered. A clear policy and staff guidance needs developing urgently. Staff should recognise the limitations of parents’ ability to make quick decisions when they may be in a state of profound shock and grief. The Infant Cremation Commission will consider the wider, national implications.

• The Federation Of Burial and Cremation Authorities and Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management should jointly review and set up interim guidance on best practice in the cremation processes and working practices involved in the cremation of babies and to establish formal and consistent training of staff in safe and effective practices.

• Parents should be told that if the funeral director signs the form, it will be them and not the parent that is asked about disposal of any issues.

• The location of where the cremated remains of a baby are buried should always be recorded within crematorium records. Parents are being consulted on how and where to create a suitable memorial to babies whose remains may have been buried in the grounds of Mortonhall.