THE ashes of hundreds of babies were secretly buried in a crematorium garden – and parents lied to that no remains existed, it emerged today.
The scandal – which dates back 45 years – involved staff at Mortonhall Crematorium, Edinburgh, who kept the ashes of babies who were stillborn or died shortly after birth.
Workers repeatedly lied to grieving parents, telling them “you don’t get ashes from a baby”.
But as recently as last year, the remains were stored and later buried in cardboard boxes in unmarked graves in the memorial garden.
Council bosses have apologised and launched a full investigation into the astonishing revealations.
Insiders claim the macabre practice, which started in 1967, may have been done out of “misguided good intentions”.
But parents, who were cruelly denied the chance to mark their babies’ last resting place, say the apology is too little too late – and some are threatening legal action.
The scandal was uncovered by charity Sands Lothian, which helps parents in the aftermath of stillbirth and neonatal death. The investigated after parents complained they were not getting ashes of babies.
Around 100 babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth in the Lothian area annually.
Helen Henderson, who lost her baby boy, Nathan, the day after he was born in August 2004, said of the Mortonhall worker who handled the cremation: “That woman could have given me just one ash in a box, but she stole that from me. I had already had my heart ripped out and she did it again.
“I want the person who has done this to me – and to other parents – to be held accountable. An apology from the council is not enough.”
Helen, 43, from the Sighthill area of the city, added: “We had to arrange his funeral which was incredibly hard. We talked for a long time about whether he should be cremated or buried, but I just couldn’t bury him. And we knew we probably would want cremation for ourselves when the time came, so that’s what we decided.
“We were told by the undertaker that we would receive his ashes.
“A few days after we plucked up the courage to go back to Mortonhall to collect his ashes. We went in and said to the lady that’s what we were there for.
“She said ‘From a baby? Well I’m sorry you don’t get any ashes from a baby’. “I just collapsed. I started howling and crying on the floor.”
“We said ‘What do you mean? Don’t be ridiculous, we were told by the undertaker that we would get him and be able to put him where we wanted him to be’.
“She just said ‘Sorry, you don’t get them’ and then telephoned the undertaker to tell them not to tell any parents again that they could get the ashes. She put the blame fully on the undertaker for telling us we would get them.
“That day I felt that my son had died again, if that’s possible.
“There are no words to describe how it felt to be told we weren’t going to get him home.”
Dorothy Maitland, Sands Lothian’s operations manager, found that the ashes of her daughter Kaelen (corr), who died 26 years ago, had been interred in Mortonhall’s grounds.
She said: “It’s come as a complete shock to me. For years I have had nowhere to go to put flowers, or grieve for Kaelen.
“The new manager at the crematorium has told me the only reason he can think why this happened in the past was either laziness or a bad attitude.
“We need to know how many babies’ ashes are buried there. My fear is that some kind of moral judgement was made and it was only babies who survived for a few days before dying who were buried, so who knows what happened to the ashes of those stillborn?”
Independent MSP Margo MacDonald called for the heads of all senior personnel involved.
She said: “I am shocked beyond belief at the insensitivity of the people who oversaw this inhumanity and lack of charity towards parents who were probably breaking their heart.
“Everyone at the council will be feeling really rotten about this. It is a complete anomaly and something that’s been happening for all these years that the council seem to have had no control or responsibility over and knew nothing about it
“They will feel terrible but will want to review matters and make sure there are no other blind spots in their operation.”
“There should be a quiet garden of peace and memories set up – a place where the parents can go and remember. They wouldn’t have that particular tie to it but it might help a little to give them a sense of closure.”
A council insider also admitted that there seems to be “no real reason” why parents were stopped from receiving their child’s remains.
The source said: “The million dollar question is ‘why did the staff do this?’ No-one can understand it and of course they don’t work for the council any more so who knows if we’ll ever get an answer?
“Perhaps it was misguided good intention? We are all completely gobsmacked by it.
“Apparently the ashes were put in biodegradable boxes and buried. There seems to be no real reason why they weren’t given to parents.”
The staff involved in the past four decades are understood to have retired last year and Mortonhall’s new manager has changed the policy so all parents who wish the ashes of their babies now receive them.
Councillor Lesley Hinds, environment convenor for Edinburgh City Council, has offered a full apology to all parents affected but admits the council “can’t change history”.
She said: “I was given a briefing by council officials after this came to light from Sands and I have now met with Dorothy and others from Sands to discuss what we do from here.
“I have apologised on behalf of the council and we have agreed to work together to try and contact the other parents affected, which will be a problem as this goes back a long way.
“We will also be contacting the senior members of staff who have now retired to get an explanation to why this happened. It is harrowing for the people involved. We can’t change history but we can work with Sands to try to help those affected.
“We will be truthful about what’s happened and we will look into a memorial for the garden.
“We will also be making doubly sure people are now happy with the policy we have in operation and that they are getting the right information and choices. We’re trying to do everything possible.”
A council spokesman also added: “We would like to point out that the remains were buried in Mortonhall’s garden of rememberance.”
One former crematorium worker who was tracked down by reporters refused to discuss the issue.
The employee said: “The council is making its own inquiries and that’s all I’m prepared to say.”
Sands Lothian will be holding an open evening at 7pm on Thursday 13 December for parents affected by the Mortonhall scandal.
The charity can also be contacted on 01316226263 for grieving parents and grandparents who wish to talk to find support.