Category Archives: cremation

The future’s bright, the future’s…..

Monday, 6 February 2017

Inside the ecoLegacy Dublin HQ

Towards the end of last year, we listened to Tony Ennis of ecoLegacy speaking at the ICCM conference about his soon-to-be released new alternative to cremation. What he had to say to the packed conference room was so fascinating that the GFG decided we needed to know more. So on a chilly January morning, Fran hopped on a flight to Dublin to spend the day at the ecoLegacy HQ.

‘I have to say, I went to Dublin not really knowing what to expect. Everything I had heard from Tony made sense, I’d done lots of background reading about him and his project, and it all appears to be 100% genuine. But I also thought that this was too good to be true, and that there had to be a catch.

I have to report, dear reader, that if there is one, I haven’t found it. It is quite possible that I was privileged enough to be among the earliest people to be shown something that is groundbreaking – and game changing – for the ways that we deal with our dead.

Everything that I saw and was told makes sense. The people involved are passionate and genuine. Huge amounts of research have been done. Various processes have been trialled and found wanting, so the engineers started over and tried a different way until they found the solution. The potential issues with current law in the UK have been addressed. There are very eminent bodies overseeing and interested in what Tony is doing (his work is being overseen by Imperial College), and the main players in the funeral industry have all already been to Dublin to be shown the unit and given the tour as I was.

It seems to me that it’s simply a matter of time before the first ecoLegacy unit is available to UK clients – and probably not much time at that. Then we will see how the public respond to something completely new. My instinctive feeling is that it will be phenomenally successful.’

Read the information from ecoLegacy for yourself below.

And if you have any questions, write them in the comments. We’ll get Tony to respond.

“Basically, ecoLegacy has developed “cremation 2.0”, a next-generation, environmental and ethical alternative to burial and cremation called ecoLation. It will ensure a greener planet and cleaner air. The company has its headquarters in Ireland and is currently operating in the UK and the US.

The idea was inspired by Philip Backman, a US scientist and teacher, who came up with the original idea around 1971, the same year Tony Ennis was born. ecoLegacy’s goal is to make Phil’s vision a reality and scale it globally and this is currently happening with initial orders coming in from all across Europe and the US. (more info here

ecoLation is a flameless form of cremation. It has developed a thermal process that uses cold and heat and pressure. It reduces emissions and poisons from reentering the earth’s precious and delicate eco systems.It is respectful to the body, it is respectful to the family and it is respectful to the planet.

So what happens when a loved one dies and has chosen ecoLation?

First they cool the body to just the right temperature. The body is placed inside a pod, the temperature is lowered and the body is chilled.  Water is released back and forth over the body reducing the remains down into ice particles. These particles are filtered through to a unit that recreates the earth’s natural process that normally takes thousands of years.

All toxins and chemicals we build up while living are neutralised and the result is completely organic nutrient rich remains. A tiny seed – of a plant, a tree or a flower can be placed into this powder and, coupled with soil, water and love, you or your loved one can grow into a beautiful strong tree or your favorite flower.

In terms of efficiency, the unit uses electric energy to get up to temperature and to create the right conditions. However, as the remains are ecoLated, they break down on a molecular level and release a very clean bio gas. This gas is turned into heat energy which is then used to power the system.  Whilst there will always be an energy requirement, it is brought back as close to zero as possible through our technology.

In the next 70 years, the Earth’s population will reach and probably soar past 10 billion people.

ecoLegacy offers an ecological choice to funeral directors and families that will ensure a greener planet and cleaner air and thus a healthier ecosystem.

Unlike burial and cremation, ecoLation offers a pure, more sustainable choice and breathes new life into the earth in plant form.

In the next 100 years, at current rates, we will need to bury or cremate more than 10 billion people. A staggering 54% of the world’s population lives on just 3% of the land, in cities, where the urban landscape cannot accept further burial or afford the pollution side effects of burning our dead. Typically funeral home clients have the two standard alternatives presented to them, but from an environmental, ecological, ethical or indeed practical standpoint, neither of these two methods are sustainable for the long term.

Current burial rates are unsustainable in our modern world.  More and more we can detect the effects of burial from fluids leaching into our soil and water courses. This hazardous waste also contains embalming fluids and, in recent times, a huge degree of chemicals from end of life drugs administered. Not to be overlooked either are the harmful pathogens that live on after we die, or the veneer on the coffins etc. We are running out of space too.

Cremation, a method becoming more popular, has relatively high pollution levels,  releasing on average 400kg of CO2 per body into the atmosphere. Cremation is also responsible for a number of other pollutants and dioxins and of course it consumes fossil fuel in the form of either oil or gas.

ecoLation is clean. There are no emissions of harmful chemicals. The body is ethically treated and all metals and foreign compounds removed. There are no chemicals active, no diseases still alive, no issues in relation to leaching and no carbon / heavy metals or dioxins. The remains are totally sterile, totally natural and totally clean. It’s a new way to be remembered.”

Tony Ennis with one of the ecoLation pods


Crematorium of the Year

Monday, 19 September 2016


Martin Birch of Thornhill Crematorium, Cardiff

This year’s winner is particularly praised for addressing funeral poverty in imaginative ways, not least through participation in the pioneering initiative of the local authority funeral scheme, which challenges the rising cost of funerals, while making the funeral purchase more transparent. Approximately 12% of cremations carried out at this crematorium use this service.

Performing around 2,700 cremations annually, Thornhill Crematorium has a 98% satisfaction rating from families who choose it

Rated as providing gold standard provision for both cremation and burial under the Charter for the Bereaved criteria, recent outstanding improvements to their premises have included refurbishing both chapels and changing the structural layout at no additional cost to the Authority through an innovative budget strategy.

With strong environmental awareness and a comprehensive recycling scheme, this year’s winner has attained Green Flag status, an acknowledgement of being one of the best green spaces in the country.

Runner up in this category: Mortlake Crematorium

Category sponsor: Scattering Ashes

Good news for Dignity shareholders

Friday, 16 September 2016


Bereaved families in the Oxford area may be a little less pleased to know that the cost of having a relative cremated at their local Dignity owned crematorium will be £999 from next week onwards.

Just a short journey towards London, a cremation at South West Middlesex Crematorium will cost £490 (source Funeralbooker report on UK Cremation Costs here).

We wonder whether it is just Oxford, or all 43 Dignity owned and operated crematoria that are hiking up their prices?

Quoting from Dignity’s Annual Reports & Accounts 2015:

We are the largest single operator of crematoria in Britain with a growing portfolio of well-established and state of the art crematoria that meet the needs of the local communities we serve. In 2015, we carried out 57,700 cremations representing 9.8 per cent of total estimated deaths in Britain”

57,000 x £999…… just under £56 million according to the GFG intern who was a whizz at maths.

Funeral poverty anyone?


Is this the worst crematorium in Britain?

Monday, 4 July 2016

Is this the worst crematorium in Britain?

Every year we celebrate the best of the funeral industry with the Good Funeral Awards.  There isn’t a ‘Worst Crematorium of the Year” award but if there was such an accolade, we have a strong contender.

Introducing our readers to West London Crematorium, as photographed on Thursday 30th June 2016.

Decaying curtains, stained carpets, seating you wouldn’t want to sit on, general disrepair and so much more.

Shoddy’s a good word.  As is lazy.  So is unacceptable.  All befit the state of this crematorium.

Our question: Is this the worst crematorium in Britain?  It’s over to you.

West London Crematorium
Kensal Green, Harrow Road, London, W10 4RA
Owned and managed by the General Cemetery Company
Cost of cremation: £650

Ed’s note – we’ve contacted the General Cemetery Company and asked for a response.  We’ll keep you updated.  

Full disclosure – I took the photographs below when I returned to the crematorium to look for my lost book of funeral poetry, the day after taking a service in the West Chapel.







Sacred Stones

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Sacred Stones

The barrow, its shape, its natural stone, its location, instantly gave me the same feeling of the past being an essential part of the present, of our lives being a shared history. Of peace and calm and connection. And I am drawn to the barrow as a place of rest and pilgrimage for exactly those reasons.” Anna Pugh, Bedford.

Last week we visited Willow Row, the round barrow destined to house hundreds of cremated remains that is being constructed in Cambridgeshire by Sacred Stones Ltd. Three of the company directors were there to meet curious locals and others fascinated by the prospect of a Neolithic style barrow being built in the 21st century.

Toby Angel is a former business development manager who met stonemasons Martin Fildes and Geraint Davies just after they had completed work on the long barrow at All Cannings in Wiltshire. Thinking back to his aunt’s cremation service, Toby recalled just what an impersonal experience it had been ‘at an ugly, municipal building’. He felt that there had to be a better way, and when he met Martin and Geraint, he realised that the privately commissioned barrow that they had just created in Wiltshire was it.

A vision of providing a modern interpretation of ancient burial mounds across the UK was born, and now the first of their sites is becoming a reality, in a secluded spinney on farmland near St. Neots. Willow Row round barrow, once complete, will have 345 niches where urns of cremated remains can be placed in hand crafted niches. Most will have space for two urns but there will also be some larger ones where four or five urns can be placed together. Single capsules will also be available, made of Portland Stone and sealed with beeswax.

Sitting in the inner circle of what will become the central chamber, we quizzed Toby and Martin about their ambitions. There was no mistaking the passion that has gripped them personally as the project has taken shape, and both men talked eagerly about what the creation of Willow Row meant to them. There was a strong sense of connection to our ancestors who toiled with stones thousands of years ago to create barrows for their dead to be laid to rest in sacred surroundings. Even Geraint the stonemason, a man of few words (but immense forearms..) became animated when he was explaining how the beautiful limestone being used in the construction tells him where it wants to go. “If it’s not the right place for it, it doesn’t work,” he said.

The organic growth of the barrow belies the years of craftsmanship involved in its design and construction, and even in this early stage it is clear that Willow Row is going to be a beautiful and very special building that will blend into its surroundings in a totally natural way. Sheltered from the environment by the surrounding trees and bushes, the barrow will eventually be covered with topsoil and look as if it has been there for thousands of years. The only sound you hear as you approach it is birdsong, and despite the surrounding fields being part of a working arable farm, there is peacefulness in the chosen spinney around the barrow that is perfectly in keeping with the reverence of it becoming a final resting place for hundreds of people.

We have asked Toby to write a guest blog for us over the coming months as Willow Row reaches completion, and to keep us updated with how his vision, inspired by ancestral rituals and rites, becomes a reality. We liked the idea tremendously. Only time will tell if the people of Cambridgeshire and the surrounding areas do so too, but in the meantime Toby and his co-directors have plans to build more barrows in Hampshire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Buckinghamshire, Somerset, Yorkshire, Scotland and Wales.

Keeping an eye on the costs

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Pile of Twenty Pound and Five Pound Notes. Image shot 2007. Exact date unknown.
Hats off to independent funeral booking website Funeralbooker for publishing their findings on the costs of funeral disbursements.
Funeral poverty shows no sign of abating as new data reveals the most expensive crematoria and cemeteries in the UK
Key points:
Beckenham in Kent; Crawley and Chichester in West Sussex; Leatherhead in Surrey and Nuneaton in Warwickshire all tie for first place as the locations of the most expensive crematoria in the UK – with cremation costing a staggering £956.
The cheapest place to be cremated in the UK is the City of Belfast Crematorium, where it costs just £364.
Prices are set by local councils for public facilities or by private companies, like Dignity PLC, for the privately owned  ones.
Around one third of the entire cost of a funeral is for cremation; around half if a burial is opted for.
They have collated the costs of every cemetery and crematorium for 2015 and 2016 and produced four data-sets with searchable maps.
When it comes to burial, London takes the top slot, with four cemeteries in Wandsworth all charging £4,561 apiece.
Northern Ireland again is the cheapest place in the UK to be buried.
There have also been massive, above-inflation rises in costs for both burial and cremation.  At Crownhill crematorium in Milton Keynes, prices have risen by 29.7%, year on year. The crematorium is owned by the local authority, as are the other crematoria on the list with the largest price rises.
It’s the same story when it comes to burials. North Watford Cemetery in London tops the list with prices increasing by 49.1% this year compared to 2015.
“Cuts in council funding may mean that many councils are turning to crematoriums and cemeteries to balance the books –  these price increases could be a hidden cost of austerity” said James Dunn, the co-founder of Funeralbooker.
2016 UK Burial Cost % increases from 2015
2016 UK Cremation Cost % increases from 2015

Do you know?

Friday, 18 March 2016


Wednesday’s Budget contained the above intriguing announcement. What’s going on here?

There may be a clue in the small print of the 2015 Budget (which we clean missed) when the Chancellor announced:

The Government will conduct a review into the size and provision of crematoria facilities to make sure they are fit for purpose and sensitive to the needs of all users and faiths. The Government will also review cremation legislation and coroner services.

“All users and faiths.” Is this something to do with provision for Hindus and Sikhs?

Or with the rising cost of funerals, much commented on by the media in the summer?

Who is being consulted?

What outcome is the Government seeking?

All info + suggestions gratefully received.

Bring on the empty corpses

Monday, 17 November 2014



Book review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Caitlin Doughty, graduate in medieval history and author of a sunny thesis entitled The Suppression of Demonic Births in Late Medieval Witchcraft Theory, rejects a promising career in academia in favour of one as a corpse handler and incinerator of the dead.

Anticipating bewilderment she asks, rhetorically, “So, really, what was a nice girl like me working at a ghastly ol’ crematory like Westwind?” And she goes on to tell us what drew her to it. She describes a traumatic childhood trigger event. I won’t reveal what it was, of course; you need to read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes for yourself. Her theory is that she dispelled the consequent denial that insulated her from the traumatic event by confronting her fears and getting on down with corpses. As a result of this self-prescribed and gruelling CBT she is now at peace with the “stillness and perfection of death”.

More than that, Doughty is now the world’s leading cheerleader for death: “Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives,” she says, “but in fact it is the very source of our creativity.” This is just one of many debatable assertions she makes in this book. Death may inspire urgency and thereby rouse latent creativity, but it is doubtful whether it can put in what God left out.

Doughty is the leader of a clever, charismatic and acclaimed corpse cult, the Order of the Good Death, “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” You’ve seen the Ask A Mortician video series — you have, haven’t you? She’s sassy, funny, outrageous and very likeable. She’s a brilliant performer. She spills and splashes behind-the-scenes secrets with a mischievous glee that appals and infuriates industry insiders, who firmly believe that there are Things It’s Best We Don’t Know. To this day, despite a great and growing following, she remains shunned by the National Funeral Directors Association. Her preparedness to bring down, in Biblical abundance, the murderous fear and loathing of old school funeral people takes guts. She’s outrageous because she’s also passionately seriousness.

Like so many progressives, Doughty is essentially retrogressive — in a positive way. Her prescription for the way things are is to get back to doing them the way we did. Nowadays, when someone dies, we call the undertaker and have them disappeared. This, reckons Doughty, is a symptom of a “vast mortality cover-up … society’s structural denial of death … There has never been a time in the history of the world when a culture has broken so completely with traditional methods of body disposition and beliefs surrounding mortality.”

The way to restore society to emotional and psychological health, Doughty believes, is to engage with the event and get hands-on with the corpse. She believes that “more families would choose to take responsibility for their own dead if they knew that it was a possibility.”

This is what working in a crematory teaches her: “Westwind Cremation & Burial changed my understanding of death. Less than a year after donning my corpse-colored glasses, I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies any more to believing their absence was a root cause of problems in the modern world. Corpses keep the living tethered to reality.”

I’m not so sure. I have in mind David Clark’s 1982 paper, Death in Staithes. The older inhabitants of Staithes, a fishing village on the east coast of Yorkshire, could easily recall the way things used to be: “When a person passed away the first thing they did was go for the board – the lying-out board,” which was kept by the village joiner. The lying-out itself was supervised by women qualified by skill and experience. These same villagers had lived through the commodification of death and the arrival of the Co-operative. To them the hands-on past is no paradise lost and they display no desire to return to it.

I question Doughty’s assertion that we suffer from “structural denial of death.” If we were to think about death some more, would it really do us any good? Yes, she says: “I don’t just pretend to love death. I really do love death. I bet you would too if you got to know him.” Elsewhere, she writes: “Accepting death doesn’t mean that you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by the bigger existential questions like ‘Why do people die?'”

Philip Larkin felt sort of the same until he hit 50. In Julian Barnes’ words, “our national connoisseur of mortal terror … died in a hospital in Hull. A friend, visiting him the day before, said, ‘If Philip hadn’t been drugged, he would have been raving. He was that frightened.’” Pretty much the same can be said about the death of another connoisseur, Sherwin Nuland, the man who wrote with spooky prescience “I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die.” He was that frightened, too.

“Let us … reclaim our mortality,” exhorts Doughty headily. But does the dearth of corpses in our lives really distance us from death? Death was big in the lives of everyone in the past because people died at any age. They don’t do that so much now, they mostly die old, and that’s less tragic, less sensational. But death is arguably bigger in our lives than ever before because the dying spend so bloody long about it. There can be very few children who are not acquainted with a tottering, muttering relative, and very few adults who do not spend years despairingly caring for dementing, degenerating parents. They are in no doubt about what their parents are doing: they are dying a modern death, a slow and beastly death. That’s why there’s such an intense national conversation in so many countries about assisted suicide — come on, how mortality aware is that? Far from being a time of death denial, the present age has focussed our attention on mortality at least as urgently as any other because the distressing dilapidation of legions of almost-corpses starkly and terrifyingly prefigures our own end times, leaving us in no doubt that the home straight is going to be unutterably horrible. If we don’t feel we have much to learn from corpses, we learn as much as we feel we need from the living dead (ever seen a stroke ward?) and from self-deliverers like Brittany Maynard. They teach us the allure of Nembutal. We talk about this. A lot.

What people believe also plays its part in modern attitudes. Religious and spiritual-but-not-religious people are, pretty much all of them, dualists. There’s a soul and there’s a body. It’s a belief reinforced by the appearance of any corpse they have ever seen. Gape-jawed and evacuated of all vitality, a corpse speaks of the absence of self. Whoever it once embodied has gone. The corpse is not the person, so what value is there to be gained from cosseting it? This isn’t a new thing. Radical Protestantism has always taught it. Calvinist settlers in America became very careless of the ‘dignity’ of their soul-less dead and drifted into just hauling them into the forest or pushing them into rivers. In some places it got so bad that neighbours were appointed to oversee next door’s disposal arrangements and held responsible for making sure things were done properly. For these settlers, direct cremation would have been a godsend.

If I take issue with Doughty’s thesis, it is because someone’s got to. For Doughty, the contemplation of the corpse is “the beginning of wisdom.” If you are inclined to believe that, she says, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you you are ‘sick’ or ‘morbid’ or ‘deviant.’”

What does morbid mean, exactly? It is Doughty herself who has pointed out that it has no antonym. Yes, what is the word for a healthy interest in death and dying? How does it express itself? Doughty and her fellow members of the Order of the Good Death express their wisdom exotically, sharing delight in much that others would regard as macabre — transi tombs, taxidermy, mortabilia and of all sorts. All a bit goth for my taste; I think there’s more than a dash of innate morbidity here. It would be idiotic to question the charisma of the cause, because it has attracted a huge worldwide following. How does it play to Mr and Mrs Everyday-Person? It remains to be seen. All I can say is that, speaking as a detached and jaded dullwit, after 6 years of hanging out with funeral people and their charges I remain unconvinced of the value of the corpse in death rituals, and while I acknowledge matter-of-factly the inevitability of death, I hate it as much as I ever did.

If by now you need some remission from my grinding and joyless pessimism, you need to buy this book. It it touches all the right bases — funny, shocking, sad, wise. Above all, it is full of hope and purpose. It is also highly readable. It was only when I re-read it that I became aware just how beautifully constructed it is. This is the work of a highly intelligent person who has got the inspiration-perspiration balance right (1:99). What she has to say is the product of experience, a lot of it penitential. She has captured the zeitgeist. This is a manifesto for today.

ECSTASY OF DECAY №1: Your Mortician from Angeline Gragasin on Vimeo.

Who’s sorry now?

Monday, 6 October 2014



The baby ashes scandal which broke at Mortonhall crematorium quickly spread to other crematoria in Scotland. Will it develop into a UK-wide scandal? Have other crematoria been failing to recover ashes from infants despite the availability of forty-year-old science showing that a foetus as young as 17 weeks’ gestation will, if cremated gently, yield ash?

At Emstrey crematorium in Shrewsbury, where baby ashes were being successfully recovered 100% of the time as long ago as the 1960s, the technique for cremating babies seems at some stage to have been lost, because since 2004 only 1 set of ashes per 30 were recovered.

Shropshire Council has launched an enquiry and clients of Emstrey crematorium have formed a campaigning group, Action for Ashes. One of its members, Glen Perkins, whose 4-month-old daughter Olivia was cremated at Emstrey, said: “We truly believe there are other cases in England and Wales. We’re not going to go away until things have changed. We’re going to keep fighting for what is right.”

In Glasgow they are making sure that what went on can never happen again. They are applying the definition of ashes proposed by both Dame Elish Angiolini and Lord Bonomy: “all that is left in the cremator at the end of the cremation process and following the removal of any metal”.

Councillor Frank McAveety, convener of Glasgow council’s Sustainability and the Environment Committee, said: “The council, with immediate effect, began to use Dame Elish Angiolini’s definition from her report into Mortonhall and moved away from the more general definition of the Federation of Burial and ­Cremation Authorities. This clarification makes it very likely that we will return any ash to bereaved families where they request it.”

In her report into Mortonhall, Dame Elish wrote:

There was little by way of formal training at Mortonhall other than in general cremation practice. When it came to the cremation of foetuses and babies, staff learned from their more experienced peers or supervisor. Likewise, notions of policy and practice were derived by word of mouth with very little other than operators’ manuals committed to writing.

Here was a sorry state of affairs.

When is somebody going to stand up and say sorry?

How Mortonhall happened

Monday, 6 October 2014



By Ken West

We are now aware that Mortonhall Crematorium cremated hundreds of babies and infants, and denied that any cremated remains existed. The recent report by Dame Elish Angiolini condemned this practice and exposed it as a scandal. More recently, the Infant Cremation Commission chaired by Lord Bonomy has reported. Anybody reading these reports can rightly ask why some crematoria produce remains and others not? How is it that good practice did not disseminate across the UK?

Lord Bonomy, unable to understand the history of this scenario, or not concerned with the past, puts in a touch of reproof when he comments:

13.1 The encouragement of communication among, and co-ordination of the work of, the various bodies with a role in infant cremation is one of the themes of this Report. Achieving clarity and consistency in communicating with families is another. It is a striking feature of cremation that so much activity is duplicated because there are two major and very active bodies which represent Cremation Authorities and staff, and that the information and Guidance they publish is not entirely consistent. Obviously the members of both bodies have the right to form and belong to whatever association they choose. However there is clearly scope for greater co-operation between the ICCM and the FBCA. The Commission have recommended that they co-operate in certain specific areas. Perhaps that may lead to more co-operation in others.

I find it annoying that the Institute of Cemetery & Crematoria Management (ICCM) is slighted in this way. The ICCM was, and remains ‘very active’. To understand that you need to go back with me and it is a long, complex journey.

Human remains or clinical waste?

In the 1960’s, Victorian principles still applied in UK cemeteries and stillborns were interred in a mass grave, one after the other. It took a few years to fill the grave which was then backfilled. The term foetal remains was unknown in cemeteries or crematoria and they were treated as clinical waste whereby the hospital disposed of them. It was time honoured practice and nobody questioned it. On rare occasions, some people, mostly the wealthy and empowered, did not leave the disposal to the hospital but took control of the stillborn and interred the baby in a family grave, or arranged cremation, with a service. Those babies who lived, even for a few minutes, were invariably given a full funeral. These were most often buried, but a rare few were cremated. I was a cremator operator at Emstrey Crematorium, Shrewsbury at that time and it never occurred to me, or the staff who trained me, that ashes would not be returned to the parent(s). To ensure that this happened, the parents or funeral director would be told to place the body in a solid wood container. The cremation was completed overnight, the hot cremator switched off, the coffin placed in a copper tray, later a steel one. This guaranteed a quantity of ash and the fact that this was mostly, if not all, wood ash rather than human remains was not considered an issue. The parents had some remains to focus their grief on, which was all that mattered.

 A grave for every stillbirth

Years later, as I took up my first managerial post in Wolverhampton, a mother was waiting to meet me. She was upset that my predecessor would not agree to exhume her stillborn baby from the mass grave. I had to reject her request, as finding one baby amongst the two hundred in the grave was impossible. I vowed to change this and in 1976 I introduced an individual small grave for each stillbirth on a plot called ‘The Babies Memorial Garden’. A memorial could be placed on the grave as well as teddies or toys. This idea was opposed by the maternity hospital administrators and, incidentally, by many of my own departmental staff, as it was seen as unnecessary. This may have been the first individual burial of stillbirths in the UK, something I cannot prove.

When I moved on to Carlisle in 1984, I immediately introduced a Baby Memorial Garden but, for the first time, prepared forms to allow for the burial of foetal remains. Sure enough, within a year or so, a woman on fertility treatment asked the maternity hospital to inter her foetus on the plot. She worked at the maternity hospital and was aware that otherwise the foetus would be put in the hospital incinerator with all other clinical waste, and the ashes sent to landfill. I had to ignore the law to permit that burial because then, as now, clinical waste cannot be lawfully interred in a cemetery or cremated. I countered the gainsayers then by arguing that no court in the land would consider the remains of a baby as not human remains.

 The psychological aftermath

At that time, in cemeteries throughout the UK, a number of older women, who had experienced a stillbirth in the preceding three decades, were making enquiries about their baby. Typically, they were experiencing psychological problems and their counsellor or psychiatrist often suggested that the loss of the baby, and absence of grieving, was an issue. Many cemetery professionals then realised that what had happened in the previous decades was wrong in that it denied the ability to grieve. Professionals working in cremation only services would not have experienced this.

It is worth considering at this point that if a decent burial facility was available, such as in Carlisle, few people resorted to cremation. The emerging charities SANDS and Compassionate Friends were also having an impact at this time, and they ensured that the cemetery manager was not as isolated as in the past when proposing improvements. Attitudes changed, not least when Esther Rantzen led a campaign to improve the way stillbirth and foetal remains were managed in 1983.

 Non-viable foetuses continued to go to landfill

As we moved into the 1990’s the individual burial of stillbirths was commonplace and the arrangements for foetal remains then took centre stage. The definition of stillbirth had been reduced from 28 week gestation to 24 weeks. Nonetheless, the fact that a 23 week baby was fully formed and yet was treated as clinical waste remained a scandal. Impetus came in the form of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (EPA), as it demanded that hospitals upgrade their incinerators to modern standards. That was expensive and many preferred to stop incineration and use contractors to transport clinical waste to regional industrial incineration units. That created many logistical problems, not least the humane loading and storing of the bodies on a truck designed to carry hospital waste. The drivers of these vehicles, I was informally told, were deeply upset at having to identify and handle the foetal remains separately. The ashes resulting from the process continued to go to landfill. Many hospitals, perhaps under pressure from SANDS and Compassionate Friends, sought local cremation and opened dialogue. Many areas did not have burial space so cremation was essential.

The ICCM was central to finding solutions at that time. The ICCM is a member lead organisation, principally on training and management. It is not a lead authority on cremation, or burial, for that matter. The Bereavement Services manager at Warrington was appointed to head an ICCM study and she sent out a survey form to all authorities asking what they did locally with regard to foetal remains, a return I completed for Carlisle on 11 August 1995. I had to take all decisions because my chairman refused to take a report to committee, as many of the foetal remains were ‘abortions’, which offended our Catholic councillors. I developed a shared burial scheme but where a parent sought individual cremation then that was arranged.

 ICCM points the way forward

The ICCM focus, a pressure group as it were, was simple and direct; to stop foetal remains going via the clinical waste route as quickly as possible. The hospital concerns were threefold, firstly that of cost, because money spent on a dead baby was not then available for the living. Secondly, that many of the foetuses, say at twelve to fourteen weeks, were not much bigger than a pound coin and giving them an individual funeral, as such, was excessive. Thirdly, that many of the foetuses, not least the abortions, had to remain confidential and identified only by a case number. The ICCM, pragmatic as ever, felt that if individual cremation was pursued, the average crematoria might receive between thirty and forty individual coffins in a single delivery from the hospital each month. Putting these individually into a cremator by hand, and keeping each separate, was possible, but it was prohibitively expensive.

The FBCA was aware of what was happening. I first wrote to them on behalf of the City of Carlisle on the 19 October 1991 to suggest that they must agree the cremation of foetal remains in order to stop the clinical waste disposal. I know of others who wrote similar letters. It needs to be understood that the FBCA represent UK cremation authorities, and they are recognised as the lead organisation by government.  Their Code of Cremation Practice demanded that each cremation be individual. The thought of a communal (shared) cremation, that of putting many small foetuses into a single coffin, appalled them. After much consultation, the FBCA suggested that they might accept that all these coffins could be put into one cremator together and cremated, yet they opposed a shared container. The FBCA wanted to maintain the status quo and blocked every proposal we put forward. Two of the meetings I attended with their officers were the most frustrating meetings I ever experienced. Much of the work I and other ICCM officers and members did was in our own time, often evenings and weekends. This national initiative was outside our routine day to day work.

 Shared cremation

The ICCM decision on the way forward was formally agreed on the 3 May 1996 by four officers, myself included, to reflect hospital consultations, including their chaplaincy teams, as well as local SANDS and other similar groups. This was to accept shared cremation, that each foetus be separately wrapped and identified, and placed together in a single container, which would then be cremated. The larger mass involved, including the container, would then ensure that ashes remained and if these were placed in a specific part of the Garden of Remembrance, then the parent(s) could visit that spot and grieve. That was important as all the evidence showed that although the majority of women involved did not want to know what happened to the foetus at the time it was expelled, or aborted, that many made contact months or years later to ask what had happened. A further advantage was that because all the foetuses were together the hospital staff did not have to make distinctions over gestation. Those parents with a foetus of low gestation would have the benefit of, morally at least, some ashes.

 Postcode lottery

This shared cremation process was defined and the container was to be delivered to the crematorium chapel at an agreed time, any parent(s) could attend if they wished, and the hospital chaplain would take a short service. The clinical waste process would be stopped in a single stroke, and the NHS expenditure constrained.  We were aware, as early as November 1995 that a number of crematoria had already agreed with their local hospital and introduced the ICCM shared cremation process. The FBCA knew this because in a discussion with their Secretary at that time he informed me that thirteen crematoria were involved. As they were evidently not working within FBCA policy I asked him what action they would take. The answer was none, that they would ignore it. The postcode lottery as regards to what happens locally to foetal remains began at that time.

The ICCM shared cremation proposal was put to a special meeting called in London on the 29th May 1996 between the Institute, the FBCA, nursing representatives and those of groups like SANDS. At this London meeting, the manager of one of the thirteen crematoria (Nottingham) was invited to address the meeting on the successful shared cremation process he had introduced. Subsequently, the shock was that the SANDS representative joined the three FBCA representatives to reject shared cremation, and demand individual cremation. That shattered the ICCM raison d’etre. Our protestations that this would ensure that the clinical waste process would continue were ignored. Government took no interest in the issue. Negotiations continued, on and off, and SANDS ultimately agreed to shared cremation, but generally such schemes only started where the FBCA did not have any influence. The FBCA response continually fell back on the same precepts, that the problems created for NHS staff regarding gestation, or the costs incurred by the NHS, were not their concern.

 Parting of the ways

This schism gradually worsened as ICCM proposals, not least when the Charter for the Bereaved was launched in 1996, caused increasing aggravation. The final breach was when some ICCM members, myself included, withdrew their authority from membership of the FBCA. This was because in places like my authority at Carlisle, where we routinely used coffin covers, held over cremations for up to 72 hours or completed individual foetal cremations, it was morally wrong to return the annual FBCA return stating that we had complied with their Code of Practice.

These ICCM initiatives were intended to reduce cremation emissions, energy usage and funeral costs. The FBCA resisted all change and neither did they introduce any proposals to improve the environmental performance of cremation or meet the changing needs of the bereaved. The psychology the FBCA adopted is worth considering, and is exemplified by their response to coffin covers. In the ICCM we used the term ‘reusable coffin’ and only after some years, and the introduction of such a coffin to the market by a funeral director, did the FBCA agree to their introduction. As this decision approached they asked me, as the ICCM Charter Organiser, to present the issue to one of their meetings in London. In fact, having travelled from Carlisle at some cost, they did not ask me to present but had already agreed anyway. They had changed the name to coffin covers, which has confused everybody to this day, as their way of taking ownership of the idea.

Evidence of the final break was when the historical joint conference between the ICCM and FBCA was ended. Each organisation went their separate ways and joint cooperation was effectively ended. Many times during this period ICCM officers discussed returning to the issue of foetal remains, but it did not happen. I still feel some personal guilt that I was one of those who failed to respond. The ICCM was forced to compromise on the recovery of ashes, but many of its members did not and continued to guarantee their recovery.

The road to Mortonhall

This scenario now leads us to the conditions that created the Mortonhall scandal. My direct involvement with the ICCM ended when I resigned my role as Charter Organiser upon my appointment to a new post in Cardiff in 2001. Consequently, what I now write is based on memory and not supported by my diary entries.

The secretary of the FBCA, a man who had stalled all change for some years, left under a financial cloud.

What are ashes?

The FBCA, keen to distance themselves from the ICCM, needed to justify their existence. The need for individual cremation of foetal remains, and infants, had to be formalised, an approach the ICCM members knew to be extremely difficult. I have no idea what happened in camera but I can postulate on their approach. The question of gestation will have arisen so there is a need to identify a cut off point; what gestation must the foetus be for cremated remains to exist? Perhaps they never answered that, but the solution promoted by the ICCM in the earlier consultations had to be discredited. That was to use a wood container to create ash, and not to differentiate between wood ash and human remains; done that way every baby, no matter what gestation, had recoverable ashes. Consequently, FBCA officers created this absurd argument over the definition of cremated remains. Their decision was that the true ashes could only be human remains, and the remains we had recovered for decades were the ‘total recovered remains’. I recall my disbelief at this summary and the sheer absurdity in suggesting that we could somehow separate the human and wood components of the ash.

They did, then they stopped

As the ash could not be separated, and most of the ash was from wood or items left in the coffin, it is easy to see how they decided that, in truth, no ashes actually existed. This decision also overcame the H & S issues that arose over using and handling hot infant cremation trays. That reason was blamed for stopping the use of trays at Mortonhall. But consider that Scotland is also more unionised than England and stopping the tray use neatly absolved the manager at Mortonhall from arguing the case with a shop steward. The fact is, the recovery of baby and infant remains is more complex, more laborious and more time consuming than not recovering them. The reports make clear that both Aberdeen and Mortonhall were previously recovering infant ashes but stopped that practice in the 1990’s.

 Natural burial, the alternative to cremation

Before I finish, I want to point out the difference between the ICCM and FBCA, which is subtle, but significant. The word to consider for either is their relative disinterestedness. The ICCM wear three hats, for cremation, conventional burial and natural burial. The organisation has no concern as to whether one or the other of these options outplays or dominates another. The market is allowed to rule and support given to whoever works in any of the three zones. In this they act as a disinterested party. Up to the 1990’s, with conventional burial crippled by nationwide memorial safety and grave maintenance costs, they were able to present a strong case for cremation, and virtually all UK councils supported their promotional stance. However, in recent decades, the case for cremation has been undermined through the introduction of natural burial. With its reduced grounds maintenance, no embalming and the use of an eco coffin, it is sustainable and actually benefits nature, giving the funeral a spiritual focus. Cremation, for the first time since it started in the 1880’s, has virtually no promotional opportunity. Even the USA has decided that incineration per se is harmful to the environment. It fell to the ICCM (and the ICCM Trust), through their Charter for the Bereaved, to support eco coffins, coffin covers, and to delay cremation (holding the body for up to 72 hours) in order to improve the environmental performance of cremators. The Charter was also the first and only document to highlight these issues in a transparent manner. Far from being welcomed, these proposals were seen as anti cremation by the FBCA and opposed.

How bad will it be in England and Wales?

If this analysis is correct then it suggests that this scandal will be principally limited to Scotland and be less evident in the more robust ICCM environment in England. It is only in England, and Wales that authorities cancelled their membership of the FBCA in response to what happened. As matters stand, in June 2014, only Shrewsbury (Emstrey) Crematorium appears to have a similar scenario, with no ashes recovered in 29 of 30 cases, but that relates to a long standing manager absence.

To conclude, I trust that this history illustrates why the Mortonhall situation arose.

ED’S FOOTNOTE: A non-viable foetus is any baby born before 24 weeks; a stillborn is any baby born after 24 weeks. To their parents, of course, they are all babies. Non-viable foetuses continue to be treated as clinical waste, as you can read here

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