Gina Davidson: We need ashes horror answers

ON the list of heartbreaking moments experienced in life, the death of a newborn baby, or that of a child being stillborn, must be at the top.

The pain from the loss of a child just as it was expected to take its first breath, let out its first cry, to open a wrinkled eye and look at its mother’s face, to clasp its tiny hand around a parental finger, to begin its journey through life. . . it is unimaginable.

It’s all too real though for the 100 or so families who are affected by such a tragedy every year in the Lothians.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Decades ago, those parents dealt with the personal tragedy in their own way. There was no help, no bereavement counselling. In many cases they didn’t even get to spend time with their longed-for babies. They were whisked away by midwives who thought they knew best; their bodies dispensed with – many in unmarked plots of land in city graveyards.

That was a time when the world was still getting over the horrors of the Second World War.

Horrors which were hardly every spoken about by the men who returned. If their wives or daughters went on to lose a child, then by comparison to the millions slain, it was of little import. So no-one talked about it.

Thankfully things have changed. These days – and for perhaps the last 25 years or so – the health service has woken up to the fact that the death of a baby is a major trauma for its parents. They need to spend time with their child, to give them a chance to bond, to talk to them of the life they had hoped they would have.

Demand for support has led to charities such as Sands Lothians being organised by women who have gone through such pain, to offer a ready and sympathetic ear to those who go through the same pain after them.

They work with hospitals so that women who have lost a baby are no longer in the same ward as those who have healthy, bouncing babes feeding at their breasts, so that parents are offered photos and other keepsakes of their child and so that they are given all the information they need about burials and cremations.

And so tiny white coffins are led into chapels, families and friends turn out to mourn. No longer are stillborn, or babies who die within hours or days of their birth, just forgotten about.

Even those who lost a child in the days when such things were not discussed, are now helped to trace their babies’ final resting places. It’s all a mark of the progress of civilisation.

You might think then that the last place where that progress has not touched is a crematorium which deals with these babies last moments, and with the aching grief of the parents.

Yet for some bizarre, twisted reasoning, staff at Mortonhall Crematorium have for years refused to hand over babies’s ashes to parents, stealing from them their right to scatter them somewhere close to their hearts.

It could well be that when the crematorium opened in 1967 that was the practise – as it was not to even discuss these dead children. It might be the case that it was long ago decided better not to give ashes back in a misguided attempt to help the parents “get over it”, but that does not excuse the fact that this has been on-going until the last year or so when new management took over.

The previous staff seem to have been stuck in a timewarp, telling bereaved mums and dads that you just don’t get ashes from babies. It’s a lie which not only breaks the laws of science, but now in its revelation the hearts of parents all over again.

It’s made all the harder to understand when other crematoriums in the city go the extra mile when dealing with the funerals of these children, offering rose petals, teddies to cuddle, small white boxes into which the ashes are put and handed back. I cannot believe that the staff at Mortonhall were unaware of the practices undertaken at Seafield and Warriston private crematoria.

To lose a child is a blow from which few ever really recover. To discover that the ashes of that baby have been boxed and buried somewhere without your knowledge – and even after you asked for them – must have left ­countless people reeling.

Parents and grandparents rightly want answers, want someone to blame. The council, which owns Mortonhall, seems not to have known this was going on. It’s as much a shock to them as to those directly affected.

An investigation has been launched. The council knows exactly who to speak to, they were employees until very recently after all. They must be made to answer for their actions, they must be made to understand the pain they have caused unnecessarily.

For the sake of those children who were denied a resting place near their loved ones, for the sake of the parents who desperately wanted their babies’ ashes, these people have to answer just one basic question. Why?