Baby ashes scandal hits Edinburgh

Charles 3 Comments

Mortonhall crematorium


From 1967 until last year, when a new manager was appointed and instituted a cleanup, Mortonhall crematorium, Edinburgh, has been telling parents that children who die antenatally or neonatally do not yield ashes when they are cremated. For an untold period the crematorium has been burying their ashes secretly in cardboard boxes in an unmarked, mass grave in a field behind the crematorium. 

You can read the story in the Scotsman here.  

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’.

One grieving mother said that when she questioned the policy she was told it had been a result of “laziness and a bad attitude”.

It looks like a very bad business. Crematoria generally are well aware of the emotional needs of bereaved parents and do all in their power to retrieve some ash, however tiny the amount. The scandal at Mortonhall may well cast into doubt practices at other crematoria. Nothing could be more unfair. This is a sector which is characterised by, on the whole, high standards. 

It is likely that, back in 1967, when cremators were hotter and, in operation, more turbulent, there were no ashes after the cremation of a baby. Mortonhall’s culpability in lying to bereaved parents would seem to date from the installation of newer equipment whenever that might have been. 

Even today, cremation of a foetus younger than 24 weeks does not yield any remains. 

When a foetus miscarries or there is a neonatal death in a hospital, the hospital normally takes responsibility for funeral arrangements and will ordinarily have a contract with a funeral director to carry out these arrangements. If there was an contracted funeral director in this case, his or her failure to hold the crematorium to account is unaccountable. 

 A widespread practice is to cremate babies first thing in the morning, before the cremator has reached its full operating temperature. The cooler the burn, the easier it will be to retrieve some ash. 

 South-West Middlesex crematorium has its own baby cremator, which does not burn as hot as an adult cremator. At the Garden of England crematorium babies are cremated on a special tray. 


The Mortonhall scandal will be no less shocking and saddening to seasoned members of the funeral industry, for whom the funerals of babies and children never lose their poignancy.


 Your thoughts would be very welcome. 
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11 years ago

This is a sad story. I’ve heard the medical profession can also be coy about broaching the funeral options for aborted babies lest the subject upsets the parents. Instead, they’re disposed of like hospital waste. Other than that, I’m lost for words.


[…] Staff at Mortonhall crematorium, Edinburgh, have since 1967  been telling families that no ashes can be retrieved from the cremation of babies who die at or around the time of birth. They have been secretly burying the ashes in a mass grave. We covered this here.  […]

11 years ago

I was at a conference recently where I met a lovely man (in the funeral professions) who happened upon a lonely cremation at a London crematorium. He asked if he could sit in on the service as he didn’t like to think of anyone departing without a mourner. Turned out to be a special service laid on by the local hospital and its chaplain for all the ‘non viables’. It also turned out that the gatecrasher’s wife had suffered a miscarriage earlier in the year and he found himself incredibly ministered to by the ceremony and words spoken there. It… Read more »