Mortonhall scandal: US diplomat and ex-wife write to consulate demanding Holyrood inquiry

Grief: Madelaine Cave feels the pain as keenly today as 19 years ago when Meghan died
Grief: Madelaine Cave feels the pain as keenly today as 19 years ago when Meghan died
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A US diplomat and his former wife are demanding the Scottish Government launches an investigation into the Mortonhall ashes scandal.

Donald Holm, who served as the US Consul General in Scotland, and Madelaine Cave have written to the American Embassy in London and the Edinburgh-based consulate asking them to put pressure on Holyrood to discover what happened to their daughter’s remains.

Meghan Heather Holm was cremated at Mortonhall on June 8, 1994. She had died aged 15 days old because of an undiagnosed heart condition.

Although born in Amsterdam where her father was then stationed, and being a US citizen, the couple decided to have her cremated in Edinburgh – and planned to scatter her ashes at a spot on the Lammermuir Hills where Donald had 

But they were told by a male member of staff at Mortonhall Crematorium that the installation of new burners would mean the 8lb baby girl would just “vaporise” because of the temperature, and there would be no ashes to scatter.

Although divorced, they have now written separately to both the US Consulate in Edinburgh and the US Embassy in London demanding answers to where Meghan’s ashes might be.

The Scottish Government is already under pressure from other families affected by the scandal to open a public inquiry into practices at the council-run crematorium. Edinburgh City Council has also launched an investigation and has hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to independently audit the Howdenhall Road facility’s records.

Today Mrs Cave, who lives in North Berwick with her second husband and two daughters, said: “It is ironic that Donald, in his role as Consul General in Scotland for three years, was involved in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing and ensured that the remains of 270 US citizens were sent back to their loved ones, yet we now have no idea what happened to the ashes of our daughter.

“We were told by Mortonhall – not by the funeral directors – that we would receive no ashes. I was so distraught. My mother found me howling on the floor after the phone call. Meghan’s birth had been traumatic for me, then she had died, and now we were being told we would have nothing of her left at all.

“I asked them why – as even then I knew of people who’d had cats cremated and received ashes – and was told that because her bones were very soft and because they’d just had new furnaces put in which were very powerful, she would just be vaporised.

“Both of us were really upset but we ultimately reconciled ourselves to the idea that she was in the ether, for Donald that meant heaven, and that she was as pure and innocent as the day she’d been born and we would carry her in our hearts. We were pleased she was not in the soil and mixed with dirt or other remains. Yet now we discover that is exactly what is likely to have happened to her.”

She added: “I have been so shocked at this and at my response to it. It has opened wounds I thought had healed. I spent four days sobbing. I had to contact Donald in California to tell him. He’s a religious man and I wasn’t sure how he’d react, but he too was distraught.

“Two years ago, when it would have been her 16th birthday, he flew over and placed a posy of flowers in the Lammermuirs where we had wanted to scatter her. It’s a place I go and think of her. We didn’t think her remains were anywhere in this world. Now we find out that they might well be, going on what has happened to the ashes of other babies of her age.”

Mrs Cave, who is a folk singer and community radio presenter, said that she’d been unaware of the Mortonhall scandal which the Evening News first revealed on December 5, until a friend brought it to her attention. “I don’t watch television news, or read papers, so I hadn’t heard about it. But friends felt they had to tell me because they remembered how upset I’d been about not getting ashes at the time.

“As a parent you do everything to protect your children, but when they die, you have to put your faith in other people and think that they too will do their best. For them not to . . . it’s made me so angry,” she said. “You start asking all sorts of questions, such as did they take her out of the coffin for the cremation? Were her ashes just mixed in with the person before, or the one who came after? It’s appalling.”

Tears in her eyes, she said: “Human beings have ways of dealing with grief – and it’s not to abandon their loved ones’ remains. If we’d been asked if we wanted ashes we’d have said yes, yes, yes.

“Some people may ask ‘why should this matter?’ but it really does. People should not be dismissive of this because it was ‘only babies’ or because it happened a long time ago. It still hurts. Of course you heal over the years, your grief is not as raw, but with every 
anniversary that rolls round you think of them. Now I feel the same way again as I did almost 19 years ago.”

Meghan died on June 3, 1994, when valves in her heart failed. She had been born weighing 6lb 3oz and Mrs Cave believes she was over 8lb when she passed away. “She was at home with us. She was thriving, but had spent most of the day crying without me being able to appease her. Donald took her while I made dinner, and when I came back through she looked terribly pale. We called an ambulance and they tried to resuscitate her, but it didn’t work. No-one had picked up on the heart defect – it was why it was so shocking.

“The whole US community around us were so good to us, the Consul General of The Hague accompanied her body to the aeroplane. The airline was great – it seated us privately – and funeral directors in Haddington were also wonderful. Everyone along the way took such care – apart from Mortonhall it seems.

“I am so angry about it, to be betrayed in this way. What is so hard in giving 
people their child’s ashes?

“But Meghan is a US citizen as am I, so Donald and I have written to the US authorities in Scotland and London to ask for their aid in investigating what happened to her by asking the Scottish Government to get involved. I have also since spoken to the US Consulate in Edinburgh and I know they have received both my e-mail, and the Consul, Zoja Bazarnic, a personal one from Donald. They said she is very concerned and will be contacting us soon.”

The city council would only confirm that new burners were installed in Mortonhall in 1994, and that the audit of records should establish what happened to Meghan’s ashes.

The US Consulate in Edinburgh referred inquiries to the London Embassy.

A spokesman for the embassy confirmed they had received Mrs Cave’s letter but refused to comment further.

‘No evidence of inappropriate or insensitive practice’

Campaigners are set to demand answers to an Edinburgh City Council interim report into the Mortonhall Crematorium scandal that has claimed staff at the facility did nothing wrong.

The report produced by head of schools and community services Mike Rosendale, right, said there was “no evidence of any inappropriate or insensitive practice” carried out by employees at the Howdenhall Road crematorium.

Mr Rosendale said: “It should be noted that an external inspection of Mortonhall was carried out by the FBCA [Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities] on 12 April, 2005, and no issues were identified.”

The claims have been published despite the council making a public apology over revelations that babies’ ashes were being put into cardboard boxes by Mortonhall staff and buried on site without their parents’ knowledge.

Bereavement charity Sands Lothian is writing to seek clarification over several “holes” in the findings, which are expected to further anger grieving parents.

The report is due to go before the council’s transport and environment committee this morning.

Sands management committee member Ros Lowrie said she would be questioning why there was nothing included about management procedures at Mortonhall.

She said: “The management of Mortonhall I think had been left to their own devices and there doesn’t seem to have been much overseeing from the council.

“I’m asking them about management performance reviews, all the things you’d have in a normal workplace.”

A total of 150 families have registered individual cases with the council after learning of the secret disposal of babies’ ashes.

The report also said cremations had been carried out at the end of the day when the cremators were cooling down from May 2011 – the date when new management started – in efforts to recover more ashes.

Police complaints grow

Police have confirmed the number of criminal complaints lodged by grieving parents over Mortonhall has now swelled to eight cases.

Officers from Lothian and Borders Police are assessing whether a criminal investigation is warranted.

Eight separate families had submitted complaints as of late yesterday over alleged breaches to the 1935 Cremation Act.

A police spokesman said: “All of these complaints will be thoroughly assessed to determine whether any further police action is appropriate.”

Toni Franchitti, from Gifford, became the first parent last week to ask police to bring criminal charges against former crematorium employees.