There is no legal definition of ashes.
Perhaps you prefer to call them ‘cremated remains’. Or ‘tangible remains’. Or even ‘total recoverable remains’. Selecting just one term and assigning an exact definition to it was one of the jobs Lord Bonomy set himself in his report. The fact that there remains no legal definition has resulted in confused and misleading guidance to the parents of babies who have died.
Does it really matter what you call them? Yes, it does. It comes down to what you think ashes are.
Are they what remains of a dead human after cremation?
Or are they the remains of a dead human + coffin + anything that was placed in the coffin after they have been cremated?
On the one hand, the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities offers this directive to those who advise the parents of children who have died:
“In cases where bereaved parents desire the cremation of an infant or of fetal remains, they should be warned that there are occasions when no tangible remains are left after the cremation process has been completed. This is due to the cartilaginous nature of the bone structure.”
The inference of this directive is that ‘tangible remains’ are the remains of the body. The ash from the coffin and anything in it don’t count.
On the other hand, the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management defines ashes as both the remains of the body + coffin + anything in it. It all counts.
When this clash of definitions was pointed out to Tim Morris, chief exec of the ICCM, in 2013, he responded: “I have only heard about this distinction in the last few months.” Yup, the two representative authorities have been reading from different hymn sheets.
Everyone agrees that cremation is complete when the last flame has flickered and died. No one is suggesting that metal parts which survive cremation should be considered ashes.
And common sense tells us that the FBCA directive is nonsense. How on earth could you possibly tell skeletal remains apart from coffin ash? Only a fool would try to separate them.
Bonomy takes the view that everything that remains at the end of a cremation is ashes. His opinion is reinforced by the “widespread perception among the public” that this is so, “and that if that is not the perception among crematoria staff, then it should be.”
He identifies the conflicting perception of “representatives and staff of Cremation Authorities and Funeral Directors” who believe that “’ashes’ are what remains of the cremated baby.”
In doing so, he gets to the root cause of the misleading advice given to the public: the misguided “understanding that the bones are not sufficiently developed to produce remains led crematoria to convey to Funeral Directors, clergy and healthcare staff that there would not be, or were unlikely to be, ashes following the cremation of a baby” – because coffin ash doesn’t count.
This ‘understanding’, let us be clear, seems to have resulted from ignorance that skeletal remains can be recovered from a baby of 17 weeks’ gestation. So it is with ill-concealed understatement that Bonomy concludes: “The extent to which that information was accepted without question by healthcare staff, as illustrated in the MIR, is surprising.”
Bonomy wants cremation law in Scotland to define ashes as: “all that is left within the cremator at the conclusion of the cremation process and following the extraction of all metal.”
But as he points out, crematoria in Scotland comprise but 10% of the UK total. We clearly need a clarification of the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, too. The sooner the better.