Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, responds to Scottish Commission on Infant Cremations, and the Edinburgh Council Mortonhall Enquiry, and calls for a UK-wide review of current crematoria practices.

Background

Parents whose babies were cremated at Mortonhall Crematorium in Edinburgh were told that there would be no ashes following the cremation of their stillborn and very young babies. However, in late 2012 it was revealed that ashes had been collected from these baby cremations, going back over 30 years. These ashes were then buried without the parents’ knowledge or consent.

The Scottish response to this scandal

Following the discovery of the practices at Mortonhall crematorium, Edinburgh Council set up the Mortonhall Investigation Team chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini, and the Scottish Government established the Infant Cremation Commission, chaired by the Right Honourable Lord Bonomy.

 These reports have now been published and Sands welcomes them both. We appreciate the immense amount of painstaking work which has gone into them. The recommendations should help to ensure that in future, no parent will denied ashes if it is at all possible to produce some.

The issue

The fundamental issue has been conflicting views of different cremation authorities on the definition of ashes.  There is no legal definition at present. Some cremation authorities argue that there are no human remains left in ashes, as baby’s bones are not calcified and therefore the residue that is left after cremation is not ‘ashes’. Other cremation authorities state that ashes are all that is left after the cremation process is completed.

This view is confirmed by the Scottish Commission report which states clearly that “ashes” are “all that is left at the end of the cremation process.”’  The Report also urges ‘Cremation authorities should review their practices immediately to ensure that, in dealing with the “ashes” following cremation, they proceed on this basis”’.

From evidence presented to the Mortonhall enquiry we now know that there is evidence of human remains in ashes after cremation of a baby born as early as 17 weeks, provided that the cremation process is adapted for babies, including extremely premature babies who cannot survive after birth.

The rest of the UK

Although there has been very little publicity in England, Wales or Northern Ireland so far, it is now clear that, across the UK, there are wide inconsistencies in how crematoria deal with the ashes of babies: some crematoria always provide babies’ ashes to parents while others routinely say that there will be none.

What Sands is calling for:

  • A UK-wide review of baby cremation practices to ensure a consistent approach to the cremation of very premature, stillborn and very young babies throughout the UK.
  • An obligation on all cremation authorities to ensure that the crematoria for which they are responsible make every effort to increase the likelihood of producing ashes following the cremation of a baby.
  • An obligation on all crematoria to review their practice to ensure that whenever possible ashes, that is whatever is left after a cremation, are offered  to the parents. It is unacceptable to deny grieving parents the choice of having ashes following the cremation of their baby. If the parents arrange the funeral themselves, either the crematorium staff or the funeral director must contact them when the ashes are ready for collection.  If the hospital arranges the funeral, the crematorium staff must inform the relevant hospital staff who can then contact the parents.

Unless offering ashes to parents becomes standard practice, public trust in crematoria practice is unlikely to be restored.

  • When two or more babies, contained in individual containers, are cremated together, separate trays should be used so that ashes, however few, can be given to parents.
  • If all the babies will be cremated in one container, parents must be told in advance that they will not receive any ashes and where the ashes from a joint cremation would be buried or scattered. This enables them to make an informed decision about whether they want their baby to be buried instead, or whether to use another crematorium that will offer ashes.

There are many crematoria in the UK where it is normal practice to produce ashes and to give them to the parents.  Guidance can be sought from these crematoria or from the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM): National office, City of London Cemetery, Aldersbrook Road, Manor Park, London E12 5DG Tel 020 8989 4661.

Why is this issue?

This uncertainty around baby cremations is causing unnecessary distress to bereaved parents across the UK and generating distrust in current crematoria practice.

We know, from over thirty years of supporting bereaved parents, that parents value anything that helps them to remember their baby.  Having ashes that were associated with their baby, however few, to scatter or bury, provides them with a significant place to visit when they want to remember their baby. Denying bereaved parents this choice adds unnecessarily to their pain and distress and can have life-long effects.

When parents have been told that there would be no ashes following the cremation of their baby, later find out that other parents whose babies were cremated at a different crematorium did receive ashes, they are understandably upset.  When parents have been told that there would be no ashes’ later discover that there were ashes and that they have been disposed of without their knowledge or consent, they feel that they have been deceived. In both cases, the parents are likely to experience new waves of grief for their baby, even if he or she died many years ago. 

Sands is aware that, when a very small and immature baby is cremated, there may be very few, if any, human ashes in what remains after the cremation.  However, parents should not be denied the choice of having everything that does remain. Any ashes associated with their baby, including those of the coffin or, for example, of a teddy placed with the baby, are a tangible validation of their baby’s existence.

6,500 babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth every year in the UK. This figure does not include those that are born dead before 24 completed weeks of pregnancy. Whilst not all of these babies will be cremated, this figure does illustrate the potential scale of this issue.

Sands’ plan of action

Sands is writing to all the organisations that run crematoria and to funeral directors, who work closely with crematorium staff. We will also be writing to all hospital Trusts in England and Wales asking them to review the contracts they have with local crematoria and to ensure that, whenever possible, the ashes that remain after a cremation are offered to the parents.

At Sands, we know how distressing this issue can be for parents whose babies were cremated and who were not offered ashes and that for some, any publicity about this brings up new waves of grief and anger.  Anyone affected by this issue can contact our Helpline on 0207 436 5881 or email the Helpline team at helpline@uk-sands.org They can also access our support booklets online at www.uk-sands.org

Note to editors: A Sands spokesperson is available for interviews. Please contact Natalie Cooper, Press & PR Officer, e:natalie.cooper@uk-sands.org t: 0203 598 1959.

REPORTS

Angiolini A (2014) Mortonhall Investigation Report  www.edinburgh.gov.uk/info/20004/council_and_democracy/957/mortonhall_in…

Bonomy I. (2014) Infant Cremation Commission Report  www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0045/00453055.pdf