Scale of baby ashes crematorium scandal revealed in documentary

A crematorium has not returned the ashes of any dead babies to their parents in the last five years.

Details released under freedom of information (FoI) shows 24 babies were cremated at Aberdeen Crematorium over the period but on no occasions were ashes given to their families.

The situation in the wake of the Mortonhall scandal in Edinburgh was investigated by a BBC Scotland documentary team.

It emerged last year that the council-run crematorium secretly buried babies' remains without the knowledge of their parents. Former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini has been appointed to lead an investigation into the practices there.

The documentary asked council-run crematoriums across Scotland whether ashes are returned to the parents of stillborn babies and infants up to the age of six months who had died, but some of the answers it received related to babies who were as old as a year when they died.

It said Aberdeen City Council told the BBC Scotland Investigates programme that it does not return ashes to parents for babies up to 18 months of age.

A spokesman for the council said the "intense heat and the turbulent flow of gases during the cremation process" means there are "no recoverable remains from a baby and infant up to the age of approximately 18 months".

In Fife the council-run crematoriums in Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy returned ashes to the families in just over half of cases, 45 out of 87 cremations of babies up to one year old.

South Ayrshire Council, Falkirk Council, Highland Council and South Lanarkshire Council said that in all cases of babies being cremated, their ashes were either returned to the parents or scattered with their consent.

Patrick McGuire, a lawyer representing some of the Mortonhall families, said the investigation shows that the situation there is "simply the tip of the iceberg".

Parents of young babies cremated at Mortonhall were led to believe there would be nothing left to scatter, but Mr McGuire told the programme: "The law says in clear terms they must return ashes. Ashes means everything that's left in the chamber. It's that simple. The law is clear.

"And it goes back to the fact that these families at their lowest ebb, in their darkest hour, trusted what they were told. They now look back and think, 'Why didn't we ask? Why did we trust these people? And I have to say they're absolutely right. Their trust was utterly misplaced.

"It's perfectly clear to me that what we are facing at the moment is simply the tip of the iceberg of a scandal that will run throughout all of Scotland, and that by the time all of the facts are out, I've no doubt that there will be no community in all of Scotland that is not affected by this."

Jane Darby, the superintendent who runs the private Seafield Crematorium in Edinburgh, told the documentary that she has routinely retrieves remains from stillborn babies up to four months premature.

"In any child cremation I've never seen where there hasn't been ashes, and I think if I was working in another crematorium where I was seeing ashes, then I would have to question as to why they were not being handed back. Whatever comes out of the cremator ... is given back to the family," she said.

"It's not for me to decide what I do and don't give to the family. And in the 18 years I've been doing this, I have never carried out a cremation where there hasn't been any ashes."

A spokesman for Aberdeen City Council said: "In Aberdeen the cremation of a child, infant or stillborn baby takes place within the same cremators that are used for the cremation of an adult. There is not a separate facility for the cremation of a child, infant or stillborn baby.

"The cremators at Aberdeen are of a size and design that due to the intense heat and the turbulent flow of gases during the cremation process there are no recoverable cremated remains from a baby and infant up to the age of approximately 18 months.

"From an infant of approximately 18 months upwards then on occasions it may be that a small amount of cremated remains may be recovered. This is not always the case, however, and in general terms the older the infant and child the more recoverable remains.

"Any cremated remains from the age of approximately 18 months upwards would be retrieved and the funeral director would be informed so that arrangements can be made with parents or guardians for collection and disposal."

The council "stated on more than one occasion in our freedom of information response to the BBC 'there are no remains' following the cremation of an infant".

The spokesman said: "Our FoI response also clearly stated that ashes would only usually be available after the cremation of a baby 18 months or over. The FoI response added that in the unlikely event of remains being recovered prior to 18 months, parents or guardians would be advised so they may scatter or inter them as they wish.

"Aberdeen City Council staff at Hazlehead Crematorium demonstrate a caring and professional approach to their work. They are clearly empathetic to bereaved parents and have subtle, caring arrangements in place to help to ease the distress being experienced. They are also very knowledgeable about the capabilities of their equipment and know exactly the outcome of cremation of infants. There are no recoverable remains."

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