60 steps to avoid baby ashes grief

More than 60 recommendations to help "avoid repetition of past failures" have been made by a long-awaited report into the handling of baby ashes in Scotland.

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The independent Infant Cremation Commission, chaired by former High Court judge Lord Bonomy, was set up more than a year ago to look at the practice of infant cremation in Scotland and how ashes are disposed of.

It came in the wake of revelations that Edinburgh's Mortonhall Crematorium had secretly buried the ashes of babies for decades without the knowledge of their families.

Other local authorities have subsequently been implicated.

While it was not part of the commission's remit to investigate individual cases, it was tasked with identifying where problems lie and to come up with arrangements for cremation which address the issues.

The lengthy report has now produced 64 recommendations aimed at improving policy and practice across Scotland.

Two "important" legislative changes proposed are a statutory definition of "ashes" and statutory regulation of the cremation of babies of less than 24 weeks gestation.

The report's authors said uncertainty about the disposal of ashes in some cases has compounded the distress for the parents involved.

It is therefore important to take urgent steps to make sure future infant cremations are handled sensitively, they said.

The report stated: "Death always evokes grief. To some it brings release and, to their families, relief from the distress of observing a loved one in decline and pain.

"For others, the grief and distress of suffering untimely bereavement can seem unbearable. That is particularly so for many who suffer the loss of a longed-for and much-loved baby at or before birth or in the early months of life.

"To learn later of uncertainty about the existence and disposal of their babies' ashes has compounded the grief, caused further distress to many, and given rise to mixed emotions in others.

"That highlights the importance of taking steps urgently to ensure that future cremations of babies are handled with sensitivity that has due regard to the duty to lay their remains to rest as and where their families wish."

Lord Bonomy handed his report to Scotland's Public Health Minister Michael Matheson last week.

The recommendations contained in the document are for those directly involved in the cremation of babies and infants - the NHS, funeral directors and cremation authorities, including a number for the Scottish Government.

In April, a report by former lord advocate Dame Elish Angiolini into historic practices at Mortonhall concluded that hundreds of bereaved parents face a lifetime of uncertainty over what happened to their child's remains.

Lord Bonomy said the recommendations in his report aim to "ensure that no one in Scotland ever again has to suffer the distresses that were highlighted by the Mortonhall investigation report''.

In a letter to Mr Matheson, he said the recommendations "should be implemented sooner rather than later in the best interests of all who are affected by baby and infant bereavement and in the general public interest''.

The minister is expected to make a statement to the Scottish Parliament later, setting out the Government's response to the report.

Following publication of the document, Mr Matheson said: "I'd like to thank Lord Bonomy and all the members of the Infant Cremation Commission for thoroughly and extensively examining this issue of such considerable national concern.

"I'd also like to thank all those who participated in providing information to the commission, and in particular the parents who have played a particularly important role."

The commission's work was confined to the cremation of babies and infants, although its findings may also have an impact on arrangements for the cremation of older children and adults.

But the report stated: "It must be recognised that there are special features of baby and infant death and cremation of which it is important to be aware in trying to devise systems to avoid repetition of past failures."

In setting out its recommendations, the commission said it has identified "a fairly widespread lack of appreciation of the impact of the cremation process on babies and infants and a failure to appreciate what the public expectation of cremation is".

But it also pointed to the "many examples of good practice already available to tap into, in all areas, and the widespread ethos of aiming to provide a dedicated public service".

One key recommendation is that cremation authorities should review their practices "immediately" to ensure they are sticking to a proposed definition of what constitutes "ashes".

When it comes to devising policy and making arrangements for cremations, "the baby and the interests of the family should be the central focus of attention".

The commission also recommends that crematoria where ashes are not always recovered should talk to a crematorium which does manage to recover ashes more regularly to learn from it.

In terms of proposed legislative changes, it is suggested that "ashes" should be defined in law as "all that is left in the cremator at the end of the cremation process and following the removal of any metal".

The cremation of non-viable babies should be the subject of "legislative regulation", while legislation should also set out who is entitled to apply for cremation, the commission recommended.

Legislation similar to that in England and Wales should also be introduced to require "appropriate certification of a stillbirth", according to the body.

It further proposes that cremation authorities record the cremation of each infant in a register which includes information on whether the ashes were scattered or buried.

The Scottish Government is recommended to set up a national committee with responsibility for baby and infant cremations and ministers are advised to appoint an independent inspector to monitor standards at crematoria.

The report notes that the publicity surrounding the Mortonhall case led to some inquiries being made of other local authorities, including Glasgow City Council, Aberdeen City Council, and Fife and Falkirk councils.

The "core concern" was that in a number of cases where parents had been told there would be no ashes, there were instances in which ashes had been buried or scattered at the crematorium.

Edinburgh City Council issued an apology in 2012 to families affected by the historic practices at Mortonhall, while Glasgow City Council apologised last year after finding that there had been a small number of cases where ashes were dispersed without the knowledge, or against the wishes, of parents.

Aberdeen City Council recently said it was investigating an allegation that babies were cremated alongside adults at its Hazlehead Crematorium.

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Patrick McGuire, a partner with Thompsons Solicitors, who represents more than 200 families affected by the baby ashes scandal, said: "The families and myself welcome the publication of Lord Bonomy's report. He has handled an extremely difficult issue with sensitivity and diligence.

"However the parameters that Lord Bonomy had to work within means that no- one will be properly held to account for the awful breach of regulations that has been commonplace in many Scottish crematoria for decades. For years grieving parents were lied to and many will never know what happened to their babies' remains.

"So, while we welcome these recommendations for the future conduct of crematoria staff, both the families and myself want a proper public inquiry so that those responsible for years of malpractice can be held to account publicly."

Families

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