A damning new report has revealed babies were cremated along with unrelated adults in Aberdeen.
The “unethical and abhorrent practices” took place over many years at the local authority run crematorium at Hazlehead.
Aberdeen City Council has been heavily criticised in the National Cremation Investigation – led by Dame Eilish Angiolini – which investigated more than 200 infant cremation cases across the country following the Mortonhall baby ashes scandal.
The report states: “While issues of concern were found in a number of the crematoria in Scotland and in the practices of local funeral directors and NHS staff, the most serious issues in this investigation have arisen at Hazlehead Crematorium in Aberdeen.”
The investigation found it was “commonplace” to cremate infants in the same chamber as adults.
Baby and adult ashes were then mixed together and given back to relatives of the adult, while the parents of infants were told there were no ashes.
Yesterday, city council chief executive Angela Scott apologised unreservedly to those parents who did not receive their baby’s ashes.
A lawyer representing some of the families affected by the scandal said the practices revealed at Hazlehead would “fill any right thinking person with revulsion”.
Meanwhile, Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell described what went on as “unacceptable and, frankly appalling”.
The investigation was commissioned by the Scottish Government in 2014 following questions raised by the Mortonhall scandal, where it emerged the crematorium had secretly buried or scattered the ashes of babies for decades without the knowledge of their families.
Dame Eilish, the former Lord Advocate, found practices at Aberdeen’s crematorium were “deeply shocking” and said they would “offend the sensibilities of the wider community and cause great distress to those whose babies were cremated there”.
It was found in some cases that an infant coffin was placed at the side of or on top of an unrelated adult coffin and both cremated together.
Many staff had the “extraordinary belief” there would be no recovered ashes from babies up to the age of 18 months – despite the fact they were recovered in other crematoriums.
The report said: “The understanding that there were no ashes or that they could not be recovered was not explained and is inexplicable.
“The truth was that ashes would have been recoverable if any care or interest had been shown in recovering the ashes.
“Instead, the reality was one of years of malpractice unnoticed by senior management.”
The report added: “Like Mortonhall, this was a section of the city council working in almost complete isolation without any strategic direction, development or quality control of the service, so far as it related to babies, infants and non-viable foetuses.
“There was little knowledge by senior management of the service provided to the families of these babies.
“There was insufficient interest taken or leadership shown by management.”
Dame Eilish found that training was done in-house with no studies of best practice elsewhere and that many staff believed there were no ashes from infant cremations because of “received wisdom from more experienced peers”.
An Infant Cremation Commission led by senior judge Lord Bonomy was also found to have been misled about practices taking place there.
Dame Eilish added: “The cremation of babies along with unknown adults is an unethical and abhorrent practice which will offend the sensibilities of the wider community and cause great distress to those whose babies were cremated there.”
The investigation also found that communication between bereaved parents, NHS staff, crematoria staff and funeral directors was often “muddled” and led to general misunderstandings about the production of ashes.
The investigation looked at 14 crematoriums.
In total, 15 recommendations were made including a law to prevent the mixing of baby ashes with those of another person, proposed criminal sanctions and tighter regulation of crematoria.
Baby ashes scandal: Who were the victims?
Two north-east mums who fear their babies were cremated alongside strangers last night described the report’s findings as “disgraceful” and “wrong”.
Gillian Mellis and Nicola Merchant were among the 200 plus incidents referred to the National Cremation Investigation, which was set up in June 2014 following the baby ashes scandal at Mortonhall in Edinburgh.
In the investigation’s report, which was released yesterday, it was revealed that in separate instances at Aberdeen Crematorium babies were cremated along with unrelated adults, and in some cases scattered in the Garden of Remembrance without the consent of parents.
Miss Mellis, 45, of Stockethill, said: “I feel absolutely disgusted, it’s just disgraceful.
“I lost my baby in December 1997, when the pregnancy was at full term.
“Right now everything is in the hands of the solicitors, they’ve issued legal proceedings against Aberdeen City Council, which must have been a couple of years ago now.
“But I’m trusting after this something will have to happen.
“I heard a comment from a woman on the city council on the radio today, but it was totally pathetic. It’s just too late.”
Miss Merchant, who lives in Northfield, said last night that her late son Liam became another victim of the crematorium’s incompetence.
When her son died of a brain haemorrhage just hours after being born 24 weeks prematurely in 2002, she was told that there would be no ashes for her to remember him by.
Miss Merchant said: “I’m not happy at all. I don’t think it’s right that the babies were put in with adults and I think it’s just wrong that we never got any ashes back at all.
“I was told that there were no remains left, and a few years ago it came out that there were ashes left down at Mortonhall , so I asked Aberdeen City Council about it.
“They just kept saying they would get back to me, but nothing ever happened – and it’s all coming out now.
“We’re not completely sure yet exactly what happened to his ashes.
“Now we’re going to contact the city council and see what they can do about a memorial, I’m going to push for one so that all the parents that have been affected by this in the north-east have somewhere to go.”
‘We fully accept this damning report’
The council’s director of communities, housing and infrastructure, Pete Leonard, said he fully accepted yesterday’s damning report.
At a press conference at the Beach Ballroom, he said: “Aberdeen City Council unequivocally accepts the findings of Dame Elish’s report and we offer our heartfelt sympathies and apologies to all the families involved.”
Mr Leonard said he could fully imagine how “distressed and angry” families of babies involved must be feeling.
But when asked if he could have done more to uncover what was happening at the crematorium more quickly, he defended his actions, saying: “An awful lot was done quite quickly.
“We reacted quickly to Lord Bonomy’s report and an independent audit was carried out.
“But I accept we could have done more in terms of looking at the operational practices.”
He added: “I think the senior managers were open and honest but some people were not telling the whole truth.
“The internal investigation did not identify that there were any inappropriate practices.”
Mr Leonard said it was not until the council received the whistleblower’s letter that they realised “some managers had been misled”.
He added: “Immediately after we found that out, we contacted Lord Bonomy and made it very clear what had been happening and the chief executive made a public statement.”
Horror at revelations
Lawyers representing parents across Scotland affected by the baby ashes scandal reacted with horror to the full extent of malpractise revealed in the national investigation.
Patrick McGuire, a partner with Thompsons Solicitors, who represents many families in Aberdeen and across Scotland, said: “Dame Elish has produced an in depth and authoritative report into terrible practices at crematoria throughout Scotland.
“Her conclusions are sound and her recommendations must be acted on.
“What she has uncovered about the Hazlehead crematorium in Aberdeen will fill any right thinking person with revulsion.
“The parents in Aberdeen had to resort to legal action to get answers but the local authority’s response was to use legal tactics to delay, deny and confuse.”
He added: “This local authority is morally bankrupt.
“They have treated grieving parents with not a shred of human decency.
“They must issue an immediate an unreserved apology, meet with the families and their legal representatives to begin to make good the years of repellent behaviour by their staff which has caused so much upset to so many.”
Politicians cautiously welcome report’s findings
Politicians have cautiously welcomed the findings of Dame Elish Angiolini’s report into the baby ashes scandal.
Ministers and MSPs rounded on the “appalling” practices, but were also “pleased” by the “additional steps” being taken to deliver a “culture change”.
Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell insisted “much has changed in Scotland since these issues first came to light”.
North East MSP Ross Thomson said: “This report will undoubtedly make for extremely distressing reading for the families who have been affected by this scandal.
“Nobody should be in a position where they do not know what happened to their child’s remains, and it is clear that there were serious failings at Aberdeen Crematorium for a number of years.
“Perhaps more concerning is that the recent Infant Cremation Commission led by Lord Bonomy in 2014 was ‘misled’ about the practices taking place in Hazlehead.
“That is a shocking development which should be fully investigated by Aberdeen City Council.
“I am pleased to see that the Scottish Government is taking additional steps to address the need for a culture change, new systems and regulations at crematoria across the country to ensure there can be no repeat of this in future.”
The Scottish Green’s justice spokesman, John Finnie, said the report would “would understandably compound the grief of parents of love ones”.
He added: “A lack of respect for babies’ remains lies is at the heart of what has been exposed and merits an unreserved apology from Aberdeen City Council.
“Looking to the future, we are reassured that the legislation brought forward will address the concerns from Aberdeen and other locations highlighted to Lord Bonomy.”
The Scottish Liberal Democrats have urged authorities to act swiftly on the recommendations.
Their North East MSP, Mike Rumbles, said: “My thoughts go out to families affected by the indefensible actions of some crematoriums.
“No family must ever again have to countenance not knowing where their loved ones ashes are.”
Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell said the “historic practices” highlighted in the report are “unacceptable and, frankly, appalling”.
She added: “It is awful that parents who have lost their child in such sad circumstances have had their grief compounded by the actions of those they trusted to support them.
“While I understand it may be little comfort for those who have been affected in the past, much has changed in Scotland since these issues first came to light.”
Distress, pain and life-long effects
A nationwide charity which supports families affected by the death of a baby welcomed the report.
Judith Abela, acting chief executive at Sands, said: “We know, from over 30 years of supporting bereaved parents, that having ashes that are associated with their baby, however few, to scatter or bury, is of huge significance.
“Denying bereaved parents this choice adds unnecessarily to their pain and distress and can have life-long effects.
“We fully support the report’s recommendations and urge them to be implemented in full.
“This should help to ensure that there is 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.
“It is unacceptable to deny grieving parents the choice of having ashes following the cremation of their baby.
“Sands is available to support any parent who may have been affected.”
How Aberdeen City Council are turning things around
Aberdeen City Council has already implemented a raft of new procedures to ensure better practice is followed at its Hazlehead Crematorium.
In August 2015, the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities – an independent industry organisation – carried out an audit of procedures with particular attention to be paid to the cremation of infants and foetal remains.
This was to ensure these met all best practice guidelines and codes of practice.
The audit report said it was satisfied the local authority was making “every effort to present an excellent service to the bereaved”.
An internal audit of Aberdeen Crematorium was also carried out last December to ensure the new practices implemented in wake of Lord Bonomy’s recommendations were working as intended.
The report states that the service had “taken relevant and timely actions to address the concerns raised by Lord Bonomy’s report.
The current procedure for infants, stillborn babies and non-viable foetuses is that they are placed on the baby tray by the cremator operator and the machines are set to infant profile.
The resulting ashes of infants, stillborn babies and individual non-viable
foetuses are now either scattered or retained for collection by next of kin depending on the instruction received.
Ashes from shared cremations of non-viable foetuses are scattered in the Garden of Remembrance.
Since the reintroduction of the tray in 2013 there has been a 100% success rate in obtaining ashes from babies, where ashes have been requested.
Staff members at Aberdeen have described their distress at the realisation that they could have been recovering ashes over many years.