“Confusing and inaccurate messages” from the NHS and funeral directors have been blamed for the “avoidable” heartache of parents whose babies’ ashes were kept for years without them knowing.
That was the conclusion of Dame Elish Angiolini in her report of the National Cremation Investigation, which included four cases from the Falkirk area.
The investigation was sparked by revelations in 2012 that grieving parents were told there would no remains after their unborn babies were cremated at Edinburgh’s Mortonhall Crematorium, when it turned there had been ashes of stillborn, miscarried or neonatal babies which had been secretly buried in unmarked graves for decades.
The Falkirk cases involved children who had been cremated at Camelon between 1993 and 2005. They were referred to the investigation and related to nonviable foetuses – babies who had died aged under 24 weeks old.
The report added: “In three cases the crematorium was given instructions which were contrary to the parents’ wishes. These instructions were provided by NHS staff or the funeral directors under the mistaken understanding there would be no ashes. Furthermore, the families had to wait years to find out the truth. This has caused considerable avoidable heartache to those concerned.”
Angela and Tommy Smith’s son Riece was delivered stillborn on April 25, 2005 after 18 weeks of pregnancy in Stirling Royal Infirmary and they decided on a cremation for his funeral four days later.
A booklet given to Angela at the time by hospital staff stated, “Sadly there will be no remains (ashes) from babies before twenty weeks gestation”. However, in 2013 the family found out the ashes were buried in a communal plot at Camelon’s Garden of Remembrance.
The son of Jacqueline and Gary Miller, Craig, was stillborn at 21 weeks on June 4, 1997 at Falkirk Royal Infirmary. His cremation took place nine days later and his ashes were interred in the Garden of Remembrance.
The family wanted to scatter his ashes at sea near Nairn and Jacqueline, who has three children, told the investigation she had no recollection of being told she was informed there would be no ashes.
On the application for cremation the word ‘retain’ was written but was scored out. It was not signed by any parent, but was signed by a Co-operative Funeralcare funeral director “on behalf of the family”.
The investigation asked to speak to a Co-op representative but was told there was no longer anyone in post who could speak about the cases.
Jacqueline said: “There is clearly confusion here but I don’t think the investigation has gone far enough in finding out what actually happened in my case and I feel like it makes me look like a liar, but no-one can explain exactly what happened. It has raised more questions instead of answering them for us.”
Mother-of-five Angela is in the process of suing authorities over the mix-up. Part of her case includes fraud as she claims someone forged her signature on the cremation form. Like Jacqueline, the report does not give her closure.
She said: “After all these years our nightmare goes on, I feel very let down with the report. It gives a broad view of what was going on at the time, but not any real specifics in my view.”
Funeral directors say sorry for wrong information
Co-op Funeralcare apologised to Falkirk families for the wrong information its staff gave them.
The firm welcomed the recommendations in the national report as a step towards ensuring future guidance from NHS trusts, funeral directors and crematoria is correct. A spokesperson said: “We recognise that the loss of a baby is an incredibly difficult experience.
“We are sorry that the processes and guidance in place at the time led to additional distress for the Miller and Smith families, and we would like to apologise to them directly for this.
“We have supported the investigation throughout its duration and following the previous Bonomy recommendations, we significantly evolved our policies and procedures to ensure they align with the latest guidance provided.”
The investigation was also “impressed” by Falkirk Crematorium’s record of returning the ashes of babies to their parents.
A spokesperson for Falkirk Council said: “This has been a clearly difficult time for the families concerned who will have eagerly awaited the outcome of this investigation.
“It recognised (in the report) that our staff are very sensitive to the needs and feelings of parents who have suffered a loss; that we treated them with compassion and; followed best practice in helping them get through a very difficult time.
“Wherever possible we will continue to put the needs of bereaved parents first and sincerely hope that an investigation such as this is never needed in the future.”
A spokesperson for NHS Forth Valley said: “We fully recognise the importance of clear communications and guidance on this issue and, following advice from Falkirk Council in 2008 that there could be a small amount of ashes available after cremation, although this was not guaranteed, we reviewed and updated the information provided to families. Additional training was also undertaken with staff in line with national guidance.”