Borders Crematorium in pledge on handling of ashes

Melrose crematorium in the Scottish Borders.
Melrose crematorium in the Scottish Borders.

The operators of the Borders’ only crematorium have moved swiftly to reassure families in the wake of the scandal over babies’ ashes at Mortonhall.

A company spokesperson for the Westerleigh Group, which opened the crematorium at Melrose in 2012, was responding after The Southern contacted the firm to ask about its own procedures for the disposal of ashes following the row which has engulfed the council-run Mortonhall facility in Edinburgh.

Last week, former lord advocate, Dame Elish Angiolini, published a damning 600-page report, which followed the 11-month investigation into Mortonhall stretching back to the 1960s.

It emerged that systematic failings at Mortonhall Crematorium had led to parents being told there were no ashes left to scatter.

In reality, it seems there had been “extensive” mixing of babies’ remains with those of adults, and that it had been likely the ashes of babies had been “hoovered up” during cleaning of flues and then interred in a piece of land.

The distressing scandal has now seen a pledge from the Scottish Government that the investigation will be extended nationwide to find answers for any affected families.

In his first television interview on the issue, George Bell, the former crematorium manager who worked at Mortonhall for 30 years and who now manages the Borders Crematorium, last week apologised to affected parents if they were given wrong advice which led them to choose cremation at Mortonhall instead of burial.

“I tried my best to make sure that the message got out that there might not be the opportunity of recovering ashes after the cremation and we provided alternatives, but unfortunately relied on frontline professionals,” said Mr Bell in the interview.

“I must emphasise the crematorium staff didn’t make funeral arrangements.”

Christine Grahame, MSP for Midlothian, Tweeddale and Lauderdale, has welcomed Dame Angiolini’s report.

Ms Grahame was contacted by a constituent early last year over the disposal of the ashes of dead babies.

She commented: “This must never happen again as it has caused such understandable heartache to the families involved.

“But I believe the 22 recommendations in the report will provide a much better system in future.”

Asked to comment on its own procedures at Melrose, a spokesperson for the Borders Crematorium told us yesterday: “I can assure you that Borders Crematorium and all of its staff operate to the highest modern standards.

“We take the utmost care to try and recover ashes where possible so that these may be returned to the family if that is their choice, although we can provide no guarantee.

“We work closely with funeral directors and the Borders General Hospital to ensure that families have all possible information about their options and can make an informed decision.”