Promise of no stone unturned in Mortonhall Crematorium inquiry

Reporter Dale Miller at Mortonhall. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Reporter Dale Miller at Mortonhall. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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COUNCIL chiefs have promised no stone will be left unturned in a far-reaching investigation into the Mortonhall Crematorium scandal.

The local authority announced late yesterday that the head of schools and community services, Mike Rosendale, would lead the inquiry into the historic practices at Mortonhall.

It will also see current and former staff quizzed.

A promise to make the findings public was delivered after 72 hours of dramatic revelations.

The council has apologised for a practice spanning 45 years in which crematorium staff told grieving families there would be no ashes to scatter or keep following the cremation of their children.

The council-run crematorium has come under scathing criticism for not telling families that remains from deceased babies were being put in cardboard coffins and buried on site.

Former and current staff members of bereavement services – the 50-strong council-employed team responsible for the safe treatment of the city’s deceased – will be interviewed under the inquiry.

The council said it would also be speaking to families through support group Sands Lothians, which first exposed the long-running case of malpractice at Mortonhall.

Procedures at other facilities like Warriston crematorium will also be reviewed.

Independent MSP Margo MacDonald, who said the scandal has revealed “decades of inhumanity”, believes council leaders will do everything in their power to carry out a complete investigation.

She said: “I haven’t spoken to anyone who hasn’t been shocked, and that’s the correct word to use. They’re so shocked that they can’t really think immediately on how they would respond.

“I spoke to [council environment convenor] Lesley Hinds last night and we discussed it and I felt much more confident after speaking to her that it would be taken very seriously.

“I think it will be [independent] and if it’s not independent enough, and if there are areas left unexplored or areas that the families are concerned or unhappy with, then I’ll certainly ask for a further inquiry.

“But at this stage I don’t actually think any more is needed. I have been struck by how seriously everyone has taken this. No-one has attempted to brush this aside.

“I think they [the council] have had such a wake-up call. I actually think that they will respond with pulling out all stops to get as satisfactory as possible a report when they review the whole thing.”

Mr Rosendale, pictured, will report directly to council chief executive Sue Bruce under the investigation’s protocol.

It is not the first time the inquiry leader has been used in a prominent role, having helped manage an asbestos scare that forced the evacuation of nearly 500 pupils from Flora Stevenson Primary School earlier this year.

Mrs MacDonald said the council chief came with a “good reputation”.

She said: “I don’t think you’ll find anyone to say anything other than that. No-one can prejudge how things are going to work out, but I would say that he’s as good as anyone, if not better than most.”

Sands chief Dorothy Maitland reiterated her own confidence the council-led inquiry would be independent.

She said: “I’m happy that the council is co-operating with it all. I have to say that I think they’ve been very open and honest with us so far and they want to get to the bottom of it all as much as we want to know the truth. They’re trying to make an awful situation right.”

Ms Maitland said she did not know Mr Rosendale, but added: “We’re at the moment just concentrating on speaking to the parents that have contacted us. We’re hoping that with our meeting on Thursday, we’ll be able to express to the council the families’ concerns and hopefully the council will carry out this investigation and somehow be able to offer some kind of explanation for us.”

An industry-wide code of practice published by The Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities is expected to be used as a reference point for the council-led inquiry.

The code states the “utmost care” should be taken with all cremated remains to make sure they are kept separate and identified. It adds: “If the cremated remains are to be disposed of in a Garden of Remembrance, this shall be conducted with reverence and respect.”

Cllr Hinds said she hoped a report from the investigation would be made public next month.

She said: “A key aim of this report will be to see what lessons can be learnt for the future and identify what is best practice. We want to be open and honest about the historic practices at Mortonhall Crematorium and I have asked for a swift report to establish the facts.”

Dale Miller visited Mortonhall yesterday morning to witness what had been done at the site for grieving families:

Snow had covered much of the grounds when I arrived at 10am.

I walked down to the smaller Chapel of Remembrance to one side of the complex’s main building.

Inside there was a bound book boxed in a glass case with daily records in memory of those cremated at the site, but no notice for affected families searching for evidence of their baby’s ashes.

To one side of the chapel was the Garden of Remembrance – an open, inclined field topped by a giant cross.

After ten minutes of searching, I discovered plots along the field’s treeline, on the property’s boundary, where the ashes of babies cremated at Mortonhall had been spread.

Green luminous spray-paint was still there on the ground, marking out individual years. It was the only indication of where parents should go to pay respect to their child’s remains. The dates started at 1982 and ended with 2007 to present. After speaking to a workman for directions, I was pointed towards Mortonhall’s head office at the rear of the main chapel.

Once inside, there were again no signs or notices on the wall to direct grieving families. I was approached by a member of staff, who said he could not comment to the media. I was advised Mortonhall was dealing with the appropriate agencies and was providing information to families who got in touch.

• A Council spokesman said the green paint was removed late on Friday.