Mortonhall tragedy: ‘a lifetime of uncertainty’ as questions remain unanswered

Posted on 01/05/2014 by


“The great tragedy of these events over many years is that many parents will now be left with a lifetime of uncertainty about their baby’s final resting place.”


An independent report into practices at Mortonhall Crematorium was published yesterday (Wednesday 30 April), but for bereaved parents the 600 page document leaves key questions unanswered – in particular, the final resting place of their child.

The families of more than 250 dead children are affected by the scandal and they are now calling for a full public inquiry. One angry and upset parent said: “”The report is damning of City of Edinburgh Council and of the practices at Mortonhall. What they have done to the families is an outrage and a scandal. There needs to be answers over what has been done.”

The Mortonhall Investigation report was commissioned by the City of Edinburgh Council in January 2013 after concerns were raised about practices at the crematorium and has been authored by the former Lord Advocate of Scotland, the Rt Hon Dame Elish Angiolini QC DBE.

The remit of the report was to establish the facts regarding practices relating to the cremation of babies at Mortonhall Crematorium and to learn lessons that will ensure best practice for the future.

Dame Elish interviewed bereaved families, current and former members of crematorium staff, representatives from funeral directors, staff from other crematoria, support groups and health professionals and took opinion from experts in the field of human anthropology, law and forensic accountancy. The report, with annexes, extends to over 600 pages in total.

The report contains 22 recommendations which will now be taken forward by the Council and other relevant agencies.

Sue Bruce, Chief Executive of City of Edinburgh Council, said: “On behalf of the Council, I would like to offer my sincere apologies to the bereaved families for the distress they have suffered as a result of the practices at Mortonhall Crematorium. I realise that the past year-and-a-half has been very difficult for the families involved and wish to thank them all for their co-operation with the investigation and their contribution to the report.

“I would also like to thank Dame Elish Angiolini and her team for their hard work on this important and sensitive investigation. Dame Elish has made many important recommendations, some of which relate directly to working practices at Mortonhall. I will be working with Council colleagues and elected members to take these forward.

“It is also clear from the recommendations that there are far-reaching implications regarding cremation practices and the legislative framework not just for Edinburgh but across Scotland and the United Kingdom and I will be working with the Scottish Government and other relevant bodies to address these concerns.

“We will now consult with families and relevant organisations regarding their views on a suitable memorial. It is vital that we learn from this and look to the future. We must ensure that the highest possible standards are adhered to at Mortonhall and that nothing like this can happen again.”

All families involved received a copy of the report by courier along with an individual case summary containing details of their case, but some remain unhappy with the findings and are calling for a full public inquiry.

Dorothy Maitland is operations manager at the charity SANDS Lothians, which she set up to support bereaved parents. Her daughter Kaelen was one of the infants whose ashes were interred at Mortonhall, and it was Dorothy’s questions about her daughter’s ashes that initiated the initial investigation.

Commenting on the report, she said: “Some of it I’m not surprised by. In my own case I’ve been told that it would appear my own daughter’s ashes are buried in the garden of remembrance but it doesn’t actually confirm it. I just think babies have been treated so differently from adults – but why?”

She went on:  “Things have moved forward but why didn’t someone think ‘no, we have to do this in a different way’? This has caused so much distress to families. Every baby’s parents should get the ashes for their baby. Staff should be trained and shown how to achieve this.”

Patrick McGuire, a partner at Thompsons Solicitors, which is representing the families, said: “The families only ever wanted the truth and answers. The families care that lessons are learned from this so that nobody has to go through what they have had to go through. By the time all the truth has come out there won’t be a single community that has not been affected by this”.

The Scottish Government is taking action to ensure this can never happen again. 

Public Health Minister Michael Matheson said: “I am clear that no parent should ever have to go through a similar experience to those affected by practices like this, at any crematorium in Scotland.

“We are absolutely committed to changing the law and a wide-ranging bill is already planned. On that basis we established the independent commission, chaired by Lord Bonomy, to examine current infant cremation policy, practice and legislation.

“He has advised he expects to deliver their national recommendations to ministers by the end of May. These recommendations will shape and inform the work of our planned legislation.”