Mortonhall scandal: Grieving parents refused babies’ ashes as mass grave at Crematorium revealed

Mortonhall Crematorium
Mortonhall Crematorium
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Babies’ cremated remains were cruelly dumped in a mass unmarked grave at a city crematorium, the Evening News can reveal today.

For 45 years, grieving parents were told by bosses at the council-run Mortonhall Crematorium there would be nothing to scatter after the cremation of their children.

But now it’s been revealed that the ashes of babies who were stillborn or who had tragically died within days of being born were kept by the crematorium – and later 
buried in cardboard boxes.

Incredibly, it is not known exactly how many babies’ ashes were dumped at the crematorium – but it is feared the number could run to hundreds.

‘We must hope some good can come from this’

‘Someone must be held accountable for suffering’

Some parents were apparently lied to when they asked for their child’s remains and were told there were none to collect.

The remains of many children were buried in a field behind the crematorium but it is not clear whether all were buried there or what happened to the ashes of those who were not.

The inhumane practice is understood to have been accepted policy at the crematorium from its opening in 1967 until last year when it was changed following the arrival of a new manager. It is not known whether the policy was devised by one official acting alone or approved by more senior managers at the local authority.

One grieving mother said that when she questioned the policy she was told it had been a result of “laziness and a bad attitude”. The city’s privately-run crematoriums - Seafield and Warriston - have both always given ashes to parents who request them.

Some of the parents involved have contacted lawyers with a view to suing the city council in what is potentially one of the biggest scandals ever to hit the local authority.

The city council has now launched a full investigation into why the practice was allowed to develop at Mortonhall and environmental services convener, Councillor Lesley Hinds, has offered a full apology to all parents affected.

Sands Lothian, a charity which counsels parents who have lost a child through a stillbirth or neonatal death, uncovered the scandal at the crematorium on Howdenhall Road.

One devastated parent who wants someone to be held accountable for the scandal has told how she has never recovered from the shock of being told she couldn’t have her son’s ashes – only to find out later that they have been dumped unceremoniously in 
a biodegradable box on crematorium land.

Helen Henderson, 43, from Sighthill, said: “My son Nathan died when he was just one day old in August 2004. We were told by the undertaker that we would receive his ashes, but when we went to collect them a lady at the crematorium told us we had been misinformed and that there was nothing for us to collect, that ‘you don’t get any ashes from a baby’.”

The charity’s operations manager, Dorothy Maitland, has also discovered that the ashes of her daughter Kaelen have been interred in the ground at Mortonhall – 26 years after she was told there would be nothing for her to collect after the funeral.

Ms Maitland 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.”

According to Ms Maitland, she and other parents were told by the former bosses at the crematorium that there were no ashes after a baby’s cremation.

She added: “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?”

The staff involved in the cruel practice 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.

A council 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 Evening News understands that some parents are already seeking legal advice about possible compensation. But Councillor Hinds said that there was no indication yet of whether legal action was likely and that the council was concentrating on doing 
“everything possible” to get an explanation for the mass burial of babies’ ashes.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

One former crematorium worker traced by the Evening News refused to discuss the issue.

The employee said: “The council is making its own inquiries and that’s all I’m prepared to say.”

Margo ‘shocked beyond belief by inhumanity’

MARGO MacDonald today called for the heads of all senior personnel involved in the scandal.

The stunned Independent MSP said those responsible should be “out of post as quickly as is decently possible” and called for the creation of a memorial garden where parents can now pay their respects.

Mrs MacDonald 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.”

She added: “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.”


AROUND 100 babies die in the Lothians ever year – that number almost divided evenly between those who are stillborn and those who die shortly after birth – and Sands Lothians offers support to grieving parents and grandparents affected by such tragedies.

If you have been

affected by the Mortonhall Crematorium scandal, then the charity can be contacted for help and advice on 0131-622 6263. If you wish to discuss it with the Evening News call our newsdesk on 0131 620 8733.

Sands will also be holding an open evening at 7pm on Thursday, December 13, for parents affected by the scandal which will be attended by Edinburgh City Council senior environmental officer Andrew Mackay to answer any questions. The charity’s offices can be found at the Craiglockhart Centre, 177 Colinton Road, Edinburgh, EH14 1BZ.

Not the same at seafield

SINCE it opened in 1939, Seafield Crematorium has always conducted cremations in such a way that a baby’s ashes could be returned to the parents.

The ashes are returned in a little bag inside a white box alongside a teddy bear. Staff also scatter rose petals over the remains “like a little duvet” before returning them to parents.

Seafield Crematorium acknowledges that “the practice with regard to the return of the baby’s ashes to the parents differed” depending on the funeral operator. “Some crematoria offer this service and some don’t,” said a spokesman.

If the baby is being cremated the catafalque is dressed sensitively and appropriately for a baby. Tea lights are lit around the catafalque. On one occasion, the staff realised the baby being cremated that day had lived for six days, so they lit six candles, one for every day the baby had lived.

If a baby is being buried, the staff at Seafield will place flowers and rose petals on the surrounding ground and inside the grave before burial.